Navy razing Yomitan’s ‘elephant cage’
May 24, 2007
YOMITAN, Okinawa — This village on Okinawa’s west coast is about to lose one of its most famous landmarks.
A U.S. Navy antenna array that could be seen from miles away and was the object of massive anti-base protests in the late 1990s is being torn down. The property — locally known as “the elephant cage” — soon will be turned over officially to local landowners.
Perched on a hill overlooking the East China Sea, the 132-acre facility, ringed by 120-foot-high antenna, was the U.S. Navy’s Sobe Communications Site. It was among U.S. military properties on Okinawa designated for return in a 1996 bilateral plan that sought to reduce the amount of land occupied by U.S. bases on the island by 21 percent.
The Sobe site was to be turned over by March 2001, but the plan ran into obstacles, including a delay in the construction of an alternate site on Camp Hansen.
The delay forced the Japanese government to forcibly renew the lease of a small plot owned by anti-base activist Shoichi Chibana, the only one of the 452 landowners to object to lease extensions caused by the delay.
Chibana is a co-sponsor of an art exhibit at the Yomitan Village Hall marking the 35th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty after World War II. The exhibit is on an old military landing strip, part of the old Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield, turned into a village road.
Following piecemeal returns of portions of the airfield from 1977 to 1987, the U.S. and Japan signed an agreement in 1995 to allow joint use of the remaining acres, making way for Yomitan to build a new office complex, community hall and sports park.
The final 471 acres were returned to the village and local landowners last December. Chibana said razing the elephant cage is a victory for Okinawans who “object to Okinawa’s burden” of hosting 75 percent of the land used for U.S. bases in Japan. The bases cover almost 20 percent of the island.
Still, in a way, he’ll miss the elephant cage, he said. “The elephant cage was part of the scenery in our community for the past 50 years,” he said. “Now it is about to go away. It is a strange mixed feeling, filled with nostalgia. Of course, I feel proud of our success,” he added.
His 2,500-square-foot property will be developed as part of a residential area, he said.
“The land is flat and has a nice ocean view. It’s a nice place for a home,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.