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Scenes of Heisei: Okinawa voices its anger over unfair burden of US military forces

Chie Mikami, left, and Jinshiro Motoyama discuss Okinawa prefectural referendums on Sept. 2, 2018, at Seaside Park in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, the scene of a citizens' protest 23 years earlier bubbling over with anger toward U.S. forces over the kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Kishi)

GINOWAN, Okinawa -- Looking out upon the grassy area that spreads over the multipurpose square at Ginowan Seaside Park here in Japan's southernmost prefecture, 54-year-old film director Chie Mikami said, "When I come here, I feel tense and unable to smile naturally," her expression fading.

On Oct. 21, 1995, this place was filled with Okinawans' anger toward three United States soldiers who kidnapped a 12-year-old Japanese girl, beating and gang raping her in September of the same year. "There was news that I wasn't able to convey properly and I regret that," said Mikami, who was a newscaster at the time at the freshly opened Ryukyu Asahi Broadcasting Co. (QAB).

In April 1996, the year following the case, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on the return of U.S. Marine Corps. Air Base Futenma, based on the danger of its location right in the middle of a Ginowan residential area, and other conditions. It was written in an interim report of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO), a group consisting of members from the Japanese and U.S. governments that discussed the realignment and reduction of U.S. military forces in Japan. The anger of the citizens of Okinawa had led to an agreement to return the base to Japan. That was the spirit in which the deal was reported in the news. At the time, Mikami had also not questioned the truth of it.

However, in the agreement reached by SACO was the condition that new heliports would be built inside a U.S. military facility within the prefecture. Soon, what had been thought to be the return of land in Ginowan to the people of Okinawa turned into a new military base issue -- the relocation of the Futenma base to the Henoko district of the northern prefectural city of Nago, alongside the U.S. Marines' Camp Schwab.

"The incident and the anger of Okinawans were just used as a tool by the government to push forward the plan to move the base to Henoko," Mikami lamented.

Born in Tokyo, Mikami had just been hired as a newscaster at QAB from her position as a news anchor at a local broadcaster in Osaka. The protest held at Ginowan Seaside Park gathered 85,000 angry Okinawa residents, according to the organizer. While preparing to read the news, Mikami caught a glimpse of aerial footage of the square filled with people on a monitor at QAB. "I was left speechless, confronted by the anger of the Okinawan people," she recalled.

Mikami worked as the main newscaster for QAB's evening news program for 19 years. In particular, she was drawn to reporting about the military base issue from the scene itself, and also excelled in creating documentary programs. She convinced her supervisor to let her turn a documentary she had made for television into a movie. The finished product was her first feature-length film, completed in 2013: "The Targeted Village."

The documentary follows a crackdown by the central government on local residents who opposed the construction of multiple helipads for the U.S. Marines' Osprey vertical takeoff and landing cargo aircraft in the Takae district of the village of Higashi in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa. The film gained critical acclaim through word of mouth, and was shown in some 40 theaters across the country. The film has also been screened independently over 750 times.

Mikami left QAB in the spring of 2014, and chose to continue down the path of a filmmaker. "I take pride in the fact that I was able to work my hardest to convey the anger of the Okinawan people on television," she said. Still, "There was a limit to just how much I could accomplish by simply reporting on Okinawa's military base issues only to people inside the prefecture."

Although 22 years have passed since the U.S.-Japan agreement to return Futenma, the issue still remains at a standstill. When Keiichi Inamine served as Okinawa's governor from 1999 to 2006, he appointed Yoshihiko Higa, now 77, as the task policy adviser handling negotiations between the U.S. military and the Japanese government over the base issue.

"The central government and the prefectural government, those who were for the move to Henoko and those against, were all too hung up on the 1996 agreement," Higa pointed out. In the mid-2000s, when the topic of the reduction and realignment of U.S. forces in Asia arose, if negotiations over the return of the Okinawan bases had been discussed in a way that was separate from the 1996 agreement, then "instead of relocation within the prefecture, relocation out of Japan could have been possible," Higa said, with regret in his voice.

While Okinawa Prefecture only makes up 0.6 percent of Japan's land, it is host to some 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Of this injustice, Higa added, "The fact that Okinawans became able to vocalize to mainland Japan that having the burden of the bases all falling on their shoulders was one of the biggest changes to happen during the Heisei era."

In January 2013, former Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who was then the mayor of Naha, headed with other senior officials from various Okinawan municipal governments to Tokyo, where they submitted papers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urging that the relocation of Futenma within the prefecture be scrapped, as well as a request to retract permission for the deployment of Osprey aircraft. The day before, those top officials had held a demonstration, walking through the center of the capital, where they had been called "traitors to Japan" and other slurs by citizens' groups that opposed their requests. It was just around the time that Zainichi Korean residents had become the target of repeated hate speech demonstrations in the areas where they lived. Mainland Japan now aimed such words of hate at Okinawa, which it had lacked at the time of the 1995 gang rape incident.

"When there still were politicians who had lived through (World War II), they were considerate of Okinawa. But now, there are none," said Higa. The Heisei era is indeed ending without any prospects in sight of the Futenma issue reaching a resolution.

On Sept. 20, during the gubernatorial election that followed the recent death of Gov. Takeshi Onaga, the Okinawa Prefectural Government submitted an ordinance proposal for holding a prefectural citizens referendum on the issue of land reclamation off the coast of the Henoko district of Nago for Futenma's replacement facility to the prefectural assembly. The proposal was to be examined following the gubernatorial election, and if it is adopted by the assembly and promulgated, a referendum will be held within six months of the adoption.

One main figure behind the direct petition for the ordinance proposal was Jinshiro Motoyama, 26, a Ginowan native currently in his second year of graduate school at Hitotsubashi University. He took time off from grad school this spring and established a citizens' group, then traveled around the main island of Okinawa and other remote islands collecting signatures for the petition. The group ended up collecting 92,848 valid signatures. The number wildly exceeded the 23,171 signatures required by law for a direct petition.

In September 2013, Motoyama saw "The Targeted Village" in a theater in Tokyo's Nakano Ward. "Takae in Higashi, which was featured in the film, is close to my maternal grandfather's house," he explained. "But even then, it was my first time hearing the story and I was shocked." He then contacted Mikami, and had the film shown at International Christian University in the suburban Tokyo city of Mitaka, where he was attending at the time.

The home where Motoyama grew up is only a 10-minute walk from the Futenma base. When he attended Futenma High School, there were times when classes would be halted due to the roar of U.S. military aircraft overhead. Still, what drove him to face his hometown's military base issues head-on was the film of mainland Japan-born Mikami.

"If I can get Okinawan youth to feel that they can talk about the issue of military bases, and that they can take action, then it will lead to future efforts," said Mikami, placing her hopes on the next generation in both Okinawa and mainland Japan. "Unless young people raise their voices, people especially on the mainland are likely to forget about the base issue."

There was a referendum held in Okinawa in September 1996 as well, one year after the kidnapping and rape of the young girl. Roughly 90 percent of Okinawans were in favor of reorganizing and reducing U.S. military installations and revising the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. However, not much has changed since then.

"As long as we can't get people and politicians on the mainland to consider the burden of the military bases on the people of Okinawa, then no progress can be made," emphasized Motoyama. "Why do we repeatedly hold referendums in Okinawa? I would particularly like those on the mainland to think about the results and the reasons behind them."

(Japanese original by Tatsuya Kishi, Akita Bureau)

This is Part 5 of a 10-part series.

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