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As I See It: Okinawa weeps at abusive comments after US military helicopter accident

Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, foreground right, and the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma are pictured in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, in this photo taken from a Mainichi aircraft on Dec. 13, 2017. (Mainichi)

NAHA -- Okinawa has witnessed a spate of U.S. military aircraft accidents with recent forced landings and aircraft parts falling from the air. Residents' desire for safety has been trampled on as aircraft return to the skies soon after the accidents. And now, as if to pour salt on the wounds, people in Okinawa Prefecture are being hurt by abusive comments based on mistaken perceptions.

Last month, after a window plummeted from a U.S. military helicopter onto the grounds of Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, the school received a series of abusive phone calls with callers saying things like, "Your school was built after the U.S. military base, so quit complaining." Most of the calls were apparently made from outside the prefecture.

With its many U.S. military bases, Okinawa has been exposed to the fear of military-related accidents on a day-to-day basis, but this situation is not understood in other areas of Japan -- which has left the southernmost prefecture feeling isolated.

On Dec. 13 last year, a 7.7-kilogram window, with a metal frame measuring about 90 centimeters on each side, fell from a large CH-53E transport helicopter onto the grounds of the elementary school neighboring U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan. About 60 students were in a physical education class at the time, and at least one student was just 10 meters away from the spot where the window landed. It was by mere chance that none of the children suffered major injuries.

After the accident made the news, however, the school received a series of abusive phone calls. One caller even asked, "Aren't you just making this up?" On Dec. 14, the day after the accident, the school fielded 13 calls. The next day it received six more. A male caller also phoned the Ginowan Municipal Board of Education, saying, "The school was built after the base, wasn't it? The accident is the education board's fault."

On Dec. 18, a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer visited the elementary school to apologize over the accident, and explained that the U.S. military would avoid -- as much as possible -- flying over the school. The school's principal responded that "as much as possible" wasn't good enough. Again, after this was reported, phone calls started coming in.

"The school was built after the base, so the principal's comment is wrong," one abusive caller said. In another call, a man from Tokyo said, "You've chosen to live among fighter planes, so stop complaining." One veteran teacher at the school disclosed, "An office worker caught up dealing with the calls was left in tears, and was an emotional wreck."

I'd like to clearly point out that the male caller was not just stating his views; his extremely malicious words constituted an act of violence. The behavior of hurting and insulting the people of Okinawa through fallacious claims -- which could be described as a form of hate speech -- is nothing new. In particular, false rumors contradicting the facts swirl around the Futenma air base, which is located in an urban area.

A prime example of this can be seen in author Naoki Hyakuta's comments to young members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party at a study session in 2015. The author told them, "The Futenma air station was originally in the middle of a rice field. People started living around the base because they could do business there."

Here I'd like to point out some facts. First, the Futenma base was initially located in the center of what was then the village of Ginowan, where around 14,000 people lived. Furthermore, in April 1945, toward the end of the Pacific War, the U.S. military forces that landed on Okinawa placed residents in camps and occupied the area. Construction of the airfield began in June the same year. Residents were later allowed to return to the village, but they couldn't return to areas that the U.S. military occupied, so they had no option but to live around the field.

Futenma No. 2 Elementary School opened in 1969 after Futenma Elementary School was divided up to handle an increase in the number of children born after the war. The school was built alongside the fence of the U.S. military base, as the base took up a quarter of the land in the city and there were no other reasonably sized locations. Initially, activity at the base was not like that seen today, where frequent take offs and landings of military aircraft are now common.

Anti-base sentiment heightened in the mainland in the 1950s, and the U.S. Marines moved from mainland Japan to Okinawa, which was at the time under U.S. military control. Still, many citizens have supported upholding the Japan-U.S. security alliance system. In the past, this was due to a clash between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the Far East as a result of the Cold War, and more recently due to moves by China and North Korea to boost their military strength. These factors led to the distorted situation today in which some 70 percent of the U.S. bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa.

In a bid to counter false rumors circulating online and elsewhere, and to provide an accurate historical background to the issue, a group including Okinawa International University political science professor Manabu Sato published a booklet two years ago titled "Sorette do na no? Okinawa no Kichi no Hanashi" (What about all that? On the Okinawa base issue). The booklet can be obtained for free online. Still, malicious slander has not ceased.

"The message never actually gets to the people who have no intention of facing the truth. It's a very scary situation in Japan at the moment," Sato says.

Seiichi Miyagi, the 74-year-old former chairman of the Aza-Ginowan Hometown Association, which informs people of the settlements that once stood where the Futenma base is now located -- including his grandfather's home -- comments, "It goes beyond anger to being sad. I guess people in mainland Japan get a sense of safety by enclosing the bases inside Okinawa."

According to the Ginowan Municipal Education Board, after the window accident, Futenma No. 2 Elementary School received 31 abusive calls -- and another 27 encouraging the school workers. Among them, callers said things like "Sorry that this has been forced on Okinawa."

On Jan. 18, the U.S. military again flew helicopters over Futenma No. 2 Elementary School. The military denied that it did so, but it remains a fact that even a month after the accident, the school has not been able to resume use of its grounds.

How should we face this current, unreasonable situation in which Okinawa shoulders an excessive burden in hosting U.S. military bases, and is yet hurt by hateful comments? Without exaggeration, I believe that if people turn their eyes away from this state of affairs, the divide between Okinawa and mainland Japan will only grow, and the hearts of the two sides will become divided. (By Takayasu Endo, Nagasaki Bureau)

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