Why some in Japan support US bases in Okinawa

Japan is host to more than a dozen US bases in Okinawa. Some residents of the island's small port of Henoko, where the US wants to build a controversial military base, say they could use the boost to business.

Peter Ford
Many Okinawans object to the presence of noisy US bases in Okinawa. Here, protesters make their sentiments known about possibly relocating a base to the island’s small port of Henoko.

After 65 years of living alongside more than a dozen US military bases, most Okinawa residents have had enough of the noise, the potential danger, and the occasional friction caused by 18,000 Marines and their machinery.

The rape of a young girl by US soldiers in 1995 has not been forgotten; the crash of a helicopter into Okinawa International University in 2004 (miraculously nobody died) is constantly evoked; and the general nuisance is widely resented.

“When the helicopters come over, they really fly low,” complains Sachiko Watari, manager of an electronic repair store just 100 yards from the Futenma airbase fence in Ginowan. “I can’t hear anything; if I’m on the phone I have to ask the other person to wait.”

But in Henoko, a small dying port where the Americans want to build a helicopter base to replace Futenma, opinions are more nuanced.

“All the men in my family are fishermen or in construction,” says Katsue Sakiyama, walking her dog through the deserted village streets on a Saturday morning. “With the economic crisis, a lot of people are having to leave Okinawa to find work. If the base were built, it would mean more jobs here.”

In nearby Nago City, where shop after shop on the main street has been shuttered by the economic downturn, Mayor Susumu Inamine – a fierce opponent of the plan for a new base – won January’s election by only a narrow margin.

In the town’s covered market, fishmonger Moriya Tokuyama gestures at the empty alleyways. “In an ideal world, I’d be opposed to relocating the base,” he says, slicing a fillet of tuna into sashimi for a rare visitor. “But in practice, I can’t oppose it; the survival of my business is more important.”

In the small homes clustered behind Henoko’s port, inhabited almost exclusively by old people born and bred in the village, the prospect of a huge construction project leading to a helicopter base in their backyard does not sit well with the general air of tranquility.

But even here, people are unwilling to voice their opposition too forcefully.

“At bottom, I’m against the plan,” says Masatsugu Kayo, an elderly gentleman practicing golf chips in his garden. “But this is a small traditional community where we have all known each other from childhood, and now we are split down the middle over the base issue. We don’t want to quarrel.

“If it comes down to noise pollution or losing a friendship,” he adds, “I think we’d do better to take care of our friendships.”


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