U.S. military bases cast shadow across Japan

ATAMI, Japan – Muneyoshi Furugen has lived in the shadow of the U.S. bases on Okinawa all of his life. He speaks in a calm and deliberate manner with a small smile. Yet underneath, when he speaks of the impact of the bases on his family and on the Okinawan people, you glimpse anger and pain.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Furugen at the 23rd Congress of the Japanese Communist Party held in the Party’s beautiful convention center here, in January. It is located about 60 miles southwest of Tokyo.

Furugen is the leader of the Japanese Communist Party in Okinawa. I was impressed with the passion and militancy of his speech to the congress. We had a chance to talk during a break.

Furugen speaks to Americans

Furugen’s first vivid memory of the U.S. bases was when he was five or six years old. It was during the Korean War. The bases on Okinawa were used as staging areas for military strikes against North Korea. Thus security was a big concern and the U.S. military demanded a total blackout at night in all the neighborhoods surrounding the bases.

One night, Furugen remembers, his family forgot to turn out all the lights. The climate of fear was such that he remembers angry neighbors descending on his house to demand that the lights be turned off. “There was constant talk of enemy planes attacking us,” said Furugen. “For a young child it was a very scary thing.”

During the interview Furugen told me that he had felt compelled to bring the issue of the bases on Okinawa into sharp relief at the congress because of the presence of U.S. and other foreign guests. (Guests at the JCP Congress from the U.S. included Chris Townsend, political action director of the United Electrical Workers union; Erwin Marquit, editor of the journal, “Nature, Society and Thought”; and myself, representing the Communist Party USA.)

“I made my speech to make you aware,” Furugen said. “The people of Okinawa want me to explain the situation to you and the American people,” he said. “They want you to see the suffering of the people.”



Some background

Okinawa is the site of most of the U.S. bases in Japan. There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island.

The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan. Some, like Kadena Air Base, take up huge slices of the land in the middle of densely populated areas. Kadena Air Base takes up 83 percent of Kadena City and then sprawls across portions of Okinawa City and Chatan Town.

After World War II, Okinawa was administered by the United States. Self-administration didn’t revert back to Japan until 1972. Records through 1999 report 136 military aircraft accidents involving injury or death. Thirty-eight of these were airplane crashes, many in neighborhoods surrounding the bases.

Perhaps the worst such disaster was in 1959 when a U.S. jet plane from Kadena Air Base crashed into an elementary school and burst into a giant ball of flame. Eleven children were killed inside the school and six people in the neighborhood around the school died; 210 were injured. The crash also destroyed 17 houses and a community center.

Crimes against the Okinawan people by U.S. military personnel are also a big issue. Figures up to 1998 show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than 10 percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Possibly the most famous case in recent times was in 1995, when three U.S. soldiers abducted and raped a young schoolgirl. This provoked massive protests. One demonstration drew a crowd of over 92,000, demanding the bases be removed and that the soldiers be turned over to the Japanese authorities for trial. This was never done.



Environmental fallout

Several Japanese and international environmental impact studies have raised the alarm about damage to the land, water and air caused by the U.S. military presence. For example, the constant live fire exercises conducted at Camp Hansen have caused major soil erosion and degradation.

The practice of firing live ammunition at the surrounding mountains has meant the destruction of topsoil protection. Not only has the erosion caused damage to the land, but drainage and refuse from the live fire exercises have led to the pollution of nearby Kin Bay. There are also serious issues of oil and toxic waste pollution from the bases.

At one facility, the Onna Communications Center, returned to the Japanese in 1995, serious high levels of PCBs and mercury have prevented use of the returned land.

Related to this is the severe problems of noise pollution caused by the military. Because the air bases, in particular, are located in heavily populated neighborhoods, the ongoing roar of jets and helicopters taking off and landing is a constant irritant.

A recent study at a primary school located just a half-mile from the runways at Kadena Air Base showed that classes were interrupted on average 10 times an hour, with deafening noise that lasted at least five seconds each time. This kind of noise is continuous, including throughout the night, making it difficult, if not impossible, for people to sleep.

Another major problem is that the bases hamper normal economic and infrastructure development. A case in point is the Futenma Marine Corps Air Base. It is located right smack in the middle of Ginowan City. The base takes up one-quarter of the city. Roads, sewer systems, power grids and water works have to be detoured around the base at great extra expense to the local government.

The airspace around and over the bases are controlled by the U.S. military and are closed to Japanese aircraft. Building codes around the bases are determined by the U.S. military. In one case a new apartment building had to be torn down because it was deemed too high and a hindrance to U.S. aircraft.

Many Americans also do not realize that the Japanese government bears most of the cost of maintaining the U.S. bases in Japan. This is a huge economic burden also on local governments.

Lastly, the U.S. bases have had an anti-democratic affect on the political life of Okinawa. The Okinawa People’s Party (the Japanese Communist Party in Okinawa) has gained great influence over the years because of its steadfast opposition to the U.S. bases and because of its support for sovereignty. The CIA has grossly interfered in the political process and undermined democracy by pouring large amounts of money into conservative candidacies and bankrolling efforts against the Party. It has also used money and influence, such as promises of economic aid, to try to change public opinion about construction of new bases.



Back to the interview

Furugen said that the U.S. war against Iraq has only made the situation with the bases on Okinawa more intense. After the horror of World War II, and the incredible terror of having suffered atomic bombs exploding on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Constitution was written to include Article 9. This says that Japan and the Japanese people renounce “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

Even though the U.S. has constantly put pressure on Japanese governments to violate Article 9, an overwhelming majority of the Japanese people continue to support it. There is also a massive peace movement in Japan. Yet the last year has seen the U.S. bases on Okinawa used as a staging area for the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Furugen named, in particular, the use of Kadena Air Base as a major refueling point for the air war in Iraq. He said that residents were aware and angry that the base was also used to stage the infamous “daisy cutter” superbomb and to deploy ordnance using depleted uranium.

Even as we sat in the interview, Furugen told me of protests going on across Okinawa and Japan against the deployment of Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq.

“First the U.S. made us violate our own constitution years ago by creating the SDF, now they’ve put tremendous pressure on the government to actually deploy troops on foreign soil,” he said. “This is making people very angry.” Indeed many of the speakers at the JCP Congress expressed outrage at the deployment of SDF troops and reported on public protests.

Furugen said a big issue right now is U.S. plans to build a new state-of-the-art military base around Nago City. Under pressure to close bases and to return land to its rightful Japanese owners, the U.S. military has come up with a plan to shut a few obsolete facilities, while building a new, much larger single facility.

Unfortunately, the peace movement and the people there are also having to fight their own government on the project. The Liberal Democratic Party government is offering billions of dollars in economic assistance to try to bribe the people into allowing the new base. But so far the people and the peace movement have prevented construction since the proposal was first made in 1997.

I pressed Furugen for more about how the bases had affected him and his family. He told me another story from his youth that illustrates the dreadfulness of living with U.S. bases used for aggression and war.

When he was in high school one of his best friends was looking for work. They saw a local notice that a nearby base was hiring. The jobs advertised were offering exceptionally good pay. So they discussed it and his friend decided to apply. His friend came back in a state of shock. The job offered was to clean and wash the bodies of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam, before returning them home to the United States.



Ending on a note of friendship

Furugen made it clear during our talk that he holds the U.S. government, the U.S. military, and some in the Japanese government responsible for the tragedy of the bases – not the American people.

“We have hope in the American people,” he said. He spoke proudly of all the exchanges and conferences between U.S. and Japanese peace groups. He said that many American Vietnam veterans came to Okinawa and participated in anti-war activities, including talking to current GIs about what’s wrong with keeping the bases.

Ending our talk with a warm handshake, Furugen said that Okinawa is a small island, a small part of Japan. But, he said, it is proud of its big role in fighting to make the country a center of peace and independence.

“I hope you will show our reality to the American people,” he said.

Scott Marshall is a national vice chair of the CPUSA and chair of its Labor Commission. He can be reached at scott@rednet.org.