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Okinawa's peace movement struggles as military presence on the islands grows


Leaders of the U.S. and Japan meet tomorrow for a summit that's expected to focus on military cooperation - specifically on Japan's southwest islands closest to China and Taiwan. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Okinawa that, as the allies' militaries beef up, the island's long-running peace movement is going through tough times.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Every week, protesters gather outside the gates of the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Schwab to voice their opposition to the relocation of a Marine Corps air base to the area's Henoko District. One of the protest leaders is activist Suzuyo Takazato. She's 84, and she says the anti-base movement needs younger leaders. But finding them is difficult.

SUZUYO TAKAZATO: Some young people say that, you know, there is no way to kick all the base out. This is a discouragement to them. They know it's almost not worthwhile to work on this issue.

KUHN: Okinawa hosts 70% of U.S. military bases and more than half of the 54,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan on less than 1% of its land. Polls show about 70% of Okinawans feel that's unfair, and they worry that, in a conflict, Okinawa will become a target. But younger Okinawans are less concerned. Twenty-six-year-old Nitsuki Karimata takes young visitors to tour Okinawan historical sites. She says her peers are less likely than their elders to take to the streets.

NITSUKI KARIMATA: (Through interpreter) Young people don't want to join the movement's sit-ins, but we definitely want to do something for peace. So more people in my generation are engaged in peace studies or peace tourism.

KUHN: Every year, Camp Schwab holds a festival for local residents with bands and food trucks. Thirty-one-year-old Takaya Katayama is there with friends.

TAKAYA KATAYAMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "We don't particularly support or oppose the bases," he says. "In our daily lives, we just take it for granted that they exist."


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

KUHN: Traditional Okinawan musicians perform at the festival. Okinawa is geographically closer to China and the Philippines than it is to Japan's main islands. It was an independent kingdom until the Japanese Empire annexed it in 1879. Nearly a third of the island's population died in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. The U.S. military occupation of Japan ended in 1952, but Okinawa didn't return to Japanese rule until 1972. Some Okinawans feel that Japan and the U.S. have colonized and sacrificed them. Again, activist Suzuyo Takazato.

TAKAZATO: They have used Okinawa as their tool, so we don't believe that our position always respected equally.

KUHN: Okinawans have consistently elected governors who represent their views on the military base issue. That includes the current governor, Denny Tamaki.

DENNY TAMAKI: (Through interpreter) My position is that I accept the current Japan-U.S. alliance. But because U.S. military bases are overly concentrated in Okinawa, I've been telling the Japanese government to reduce the excessive burden imposed by these bases.

KUHN: Tamaki's father was a U.S. Marine. His mother was an Okinawan woman. He says that he wants Japan's government to put more effort into regional diplomacy.

TAMAKI: (Through interpreter) Building peace does not necessarily mean countering threats. We'd like to build mutually trusting relationships with neighboring Asian countries, as the Japanese government has done in the past.

KUHN: But Fumiaki Nozoe, an expert on U.S.-Japan relations at Okinawa International University, says Okinawa's governors are in a tough spot, as the prefecture is one of Japan's poorest.

FUMIAKI NOZOE: (Through interpreter) The governor must conflict with the central government on issues of U.S. military bases. On the other hand, he or she must ask the central government for cooperation on issues of economic development. That's the dilemma.

KUHN: The chances that Okinawa will have any fewer U.S. military bases to host look slim. A new poll out this week of 46 Japanese prefectural governors found 21 of them thought Okinawa's burden should be lightened, but none of them said they would accept a U.S. base moving to their prefecture. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Okinawa, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.