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Japanese photographer vows to keep capturing US Marines' rule-breaking nighttime shellfire

This Feb. 14, 2021 photo taken by Tsuyoshi Takami shows a flash of light in Yufu, Oita Prefecture. The picture served as evidence to suggest the U.S. military was conducting artillery live-fire training in the Hijudai Training Area at night in defiance of a memorandum between the local governments and the Japanese Defense Ministry's Kyushu Defense Bureau. (Photo courtesy by Tsuyoshi Takami)

OITA -- A photograph capturing a beaming flash in the darkness has revealed the U.S. Marine Corps' breach of a rule banning nighttime live-fire training at a Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) exercise area in southwest Japan.

    The Marines, stationed in Okinawa, conducted the off-hours exercise in February 2020 at the GSDF Hijudai Training Area in Oita Prefecture. This was in defiance of a memorandum sealed by the local governments and the Defense Ministry's Kyushu Defense Bureau that barred troops at Hijudai from artillery live-fire training after 8 p.m. The Marine unit has engaged in live-fire training there since 1999, as part of measures to ease Okinawa's U.S. base-hosting burden.

    Tsuyoshi Takami, 70, a photographer living in the prefectural city of Yufu, captured the nighttime artillery fire on his camera on Feb. 14 last year. It was past 8 p.m. on a freezing night, when he heard a loud thump, sending reverberations through his body. "No way," he thought to himself.

    He rushed to a camera he had set up along a prefectural road overlooking the training area, and clicked the shutter. Along with an explosive sound came a flash. The sound of shells hitting the ground continued until shortly before 9 p.m.

    A relaxed U.S. Marine is seen during a group trip to Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in February 1999. (Photo courtesy by Tsuyoshi Takami)

    The photos Takami took at the time were subsequently published by various media, triggering a widespread backlash against U.S. Forces. However, the U.S. military continued with the out-of-hours drills, for a total of five days, firing 67 shells.

    Oita Gov. Katsusada Hirose lodged a protest with then Defense Minister Taro Kono, demanding that the memorandum be observed. In March this year, Kono's successor Nobuo Kishi replied to the governor that U.S. Forces had declined the prefectural government's request. Kishi stated, "As the security environment surrounding Japan is becoming increasingly severe, U.S. Forces are concentrating on maintaining their quick reaction capabilities." Gov. Hirose expressed his displeasure, saying, "It's not so much a shame as regrettable."

    A native of the prefectural city of Hita, Takami began to snap photos when he was around 20 years old, after his elder brother and painter Kenji, now 73, bought him a camera. He would take shots while working as an antique art dealer in Hita. After Kenji established a museum in what is now part of the city of Yufu, Takami relocated there in 1986 at his brother's invitation.

    Takami learned the ins and outs of photography while serving as an assistant to a photographer for the museum, and became independent in 1991. He has since captured various subjects, from local community events, wild flowers and grasses, and seasonal landscapes, to monks training in the mountains.

    In 1995, a girl in Okinawa was raped by three U.S. servicemen, fueling local anti-base sentiment. It was after this incident that talks to relocate part of U.S. Marine Corps training to mainland Japan began. The GSDF Hijudai Training Area was cited as one of the candidate sites, and Takami thought to himself, "There's nothing we can do about it."

    No matter how much Japanese people protest, the U.S. forces would have it their way in the end. Takami understood this by watching what had happened in Okinawa. If possible, he would rather not get involved in such a politically sensitive issue.

    In the fall of that year, Takami was taking a mountain walk near his home, when he found a rare flower on a slope facing the training area. He took a shot of the flower, but judged there was not enough sunlight. As he was waiting for the light to improve, the GSDF began a drill in the training area.

    Thud, thud, thud. The sounds of shellfire echoing through the area got on his nerves. He was walking in the mountains to escape from talk about relocating U.S. military training to the area, but had found himself listening to shelling as he was taking in the beauty of the flowers. If U.S. military training was moved here, what would happen?

    Tsuyoshi Takami shows his photo capturing U.S. Marines, in this picture taken in Yufu, Oita Prefecture, on May 18, 2021. He says he was once allowed into the Hijudai Training Area during training. (Mainichi/Fumito Tsushima)

    "The U.S. forces, people protesting them, and the residents here are all part of this community. I'll keep photographing them all," he thought. He has since made efforts to capture U.S. military training on his camera day after day.

    It was during these activities that he discovered the nighttime training.

    "The U.S. military has shown its colors at last. It's such a shame," he thought, overwhelmed by a mix of anger and helplessness. He was left with a sense of crisis that Japan might become a frontline U.S. base in the near future.

    Out of concern, he decided to mount an exhibition of 36 photographs he had taken since 1996, including ones related to U.S. military training and the scenery of Hijudai. Titled "Kaze no kioku: Yufuin-Hijudai 1996-2021," the exhibit runs until June 30 at the Yufuin Station art hall in Yufu. Admission is free.

    "The military training may be necessary for the U.S. forces in terms of security, but what they are doing is practicing to kill people, which saddens me a great deal," Takami said. "I'd like to ask people who see my pictures, 'What do you think about it?'"

    (Japanese original by Fumito Tsushima, Oita Bureau)

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