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Okinawans both for and against Henoko base urge Japan mainlanders to join base debate

Yoshie Higa points toward U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Schwab from her home in the Abu district of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago, on Dec. 12, 2018. Visible beyond the base is the area zoned off for land reclamation for a replacement base for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawa prefectural city of Ginowan. (Mainichi/Tadashi Sano)

NAGO, Okinawa -- As the central government started land reclamation work off the coast of the Henoko district here to build a U.S. military base in Japan's southernmost prefecture Dec. 14, both those for and against the new installation urged citizens in mainland Japan to view the issue as their own.

Dec. 13 marked the two-year anniversary of the crash-landing of a U.S. Marine Osprey MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft off the coast of Abu district in the city of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture. Residents living near the coast there saw the destruction wrought by the incident firsthand. That prompted them to raise increasingly loud objections to the construction of a replacement base in Henoko -- on the opposite shore of Oura Bay -- for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan. Meanwhile, however, some Henoko residents have voiced resignation or support for the new base.

As locals grappled with myriad and at times conflicting sentiments, the central government began dumping soil and sand into the waters off Henoko on the morning of Dec. 14.

Yoshie Higa, 88, who lives on a hill overlooking Oura Bay, on Dec. 12 pointed in the direction of U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Schwab, beyond which a ship loaded with soil and sand was visible. "I probably won't be alive when the new base is completed," she said. "But I don't want to leave something like that to my children and grandchildren. More and more Osprey will fly over this place. That terrifies me."

Even if she wanted to, Higa cannot forget what she saw two years ago. On the morning of Dec. 13, 2016, she had rushed down to the coast to see what remained of the crash-landed Osprey aircraft. The shocking site left her at a loss for words.

Higa has experienced her share of suffering. Born to a farming family in the Abu district, she spent several months in a bomb shelter during the Battle of Okinawa 73 years ago. Unable to let go of her fear that the base in the process of being built would once again destroy people's lives, she and her friends decided to host a local photo exhibition that opened on Dec. 13. On display are photos of coral reefs and fish in Oura Bay -- where the government has just commenced landfill work -- taken by a local diving team.

"I want more people from the mainland to learn about Okinawa's history and the issue of U.S. military bases," Higa said.

Meanwhile, 73-year-old Henoko resident Katsuko Shikiya, whose husband is a former U.S. Marine, accepts the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko as necessary from a national defense perspective. Her father was a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, and died in the Battle of Okinawa. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, she herself worked at Camp Schwab for at least 20 years.

"The residents here are exhausted," she said. "If the decision's already been made, they should quickly go ahead with it."

Still, she has a thing or two to say about the issue. "There is a need for all Japanese citizens to think about military bases, and yet the bases are mostly concentrated in Okinawa. Just like the Fukushima nuclear disaster feels like a faraway problem that doesn't concern me, mainlanders must not have any interest in the military base issue. The central government should dedicate its efforts to providing thorough explanations on the base relocation plan."

(Japanese original by Tadashi Sano, Kyushu News Department)

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