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Abuse of school over chopper window accident shows discrimination against Okinawa

Reporters, local assembly members and others gather outside the Futenma No. 2 Elementary School after hearing that an object believed to be from a U.S. military helicopter had fallen on the school grounds, in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 13, 2017. (Mainichi)

GINOWAN, Okinawa -- The Futenma No. 2 Elementary School here, the site where a window frame from a U.S. military helicopter fell earlier this month, has been receiving angry phone calls by those who claim that the incident was staged and that the school should not be complaining since it was built after the neighboring U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma was established there. What lies behind these calls that also suggest a discriminatory sentiment against Okinawa?

The school opened in 1969 by splitting the Futenma Elementary School amid the growing number of students at the latter institution. Since the base occupies one-fourth of the city, the municipal government says it had no other option for the location of the No. 2 elementary school.

The history of the Futenma base goes back to the Battle of Okinawa toward the end of the Pacific War. The U.S. military built the air base while detaining Okinawa residents in a camp. There used to be communities, town halls and schools in the area before the base was established. Following the end of war, local residents had no choice but to settle in surrounding areas.

The U.S. Marines started moving out of Japan's mainland to Okinawa in the 1950s, but the Futenma base remained quiet in the beginning. Hidematsu Sakihama, 81, who worked at the air station in the 1960s, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The base was empty during the Vietnam War (over which the peace accord was signed in 1973)." Circumstances surrounding the air base, however, changed drastically after that.

According to Fumiaki Nozoe, associate professor at Okinawa International University specializing in the diplomatic history of Japan, air traffic involving U.S. military aircraft became busy after units moved from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture and other bases to the Futenma base in the latter half of the 1970s.

"As a result of scaling down U.S. bases on the mainland, efforts to concentrate such bases in Okinawa and enhance functions of the Futenma base advanced," Nozoe said.

Upon a request from the PTA of Futenma No. 2 Elementary School to relocate the facility, the Ginowan Municipal Government asked the central government for roughly 3 billion yen in the 1980s to purchase land and for other costs, but the relocation never took place.

Former Futenma No. 2 PTA chairman Toranori Fujii, 68, recalled, "The (central) government did not understand the situation at all."

Following the recent chopper window frame incident, the school has received at least 30 phone calls, some of which accused the institution of "staging" the fall. These included a call from a Tokyo man who said Okinawan people "depend on U.S. bases" and they should not care even if something falls from a helicopter and something happens to children because they receive money. Another Tokyo man told the school not to complain as it was built after the air base and claimed that local residents lived off of bases on the island.

In response, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said on Dec. 21, "Those people accuse the school of staging something that happened right in front of the eyes (of children and school staff). This (accusation) itself is a social phenomenon that we have never seen."

Political science professor Manabu Sato at Okinawa International University points out "a false sense of justice" among some people behind such verbal assaults against the school to justify the concentration of military bases in Okinawa using the argument of the growing threat from China.

"Once a false rumor is spread, we cannot reach out (to those who believe it) even if we present facts," Sato says.

Journalist Shoko Egawa also points out that for those who sympathize with the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, protesting flights of U.S. military aircraft appears as an act of challenging the administration.

Attacks on those who are against the presence of the U.S. military in Okinawa did not just start with the window incident. In 2013, anti-Osprey aircraft protesters in Tokyo's Ginza district were called "unpatriotic," while an Osaka Prefectural Police officer in 2016 called local residents protesting against the relocation of a U.S. helipad in the Okinawa Prefecture village of Higashi "aborigines."

Journalist Koichi Yasuda who is versed in issues of discrimination says Okinawa has become the target of hatred, which entails false rumors of a vicious nature. He added, "We need to discuss this as an issue concerning all of Japan."

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