Flea market closed in wake of fatal blast
September 5, 2003
OKINAWA CITY, Okinawa — An illegal flea market operating along a public access road through part of Kadena Air Base since the early 1990s was ordered closed Tuesday after being linked to an explosion that killed a Naha man Sunday.
Okinawa police believe a practice grenade being cleaned for resale by Takio Tamura, 53, exploded, killing him instantly in the office of an Okinawa City junkyard.
An investigation into his death led to the flea market.
Tamura was a senior master sergeant in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, assigned to Naha Air Base. A search of his van parked in the junkyard turned up 26 dud practice grenades.
And a subsequent search of his four-room apartment in Naha uncovered two rocket-propelled grenades, an M-16 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and other military paraphernalia, police said. An examination of the grenades disclosed they did not contain warheads, but had fuses and enough explosive potential to present a serious hazard.
Tamura’s wife and two children were evacuated and explosive ordnance experts from the U.S. Air Force were called in to assess the potential danger, police said.
Air Force explosives experts will begin defusing the grenades found in Tamura’s apartment at 9 a.m. Saturday. About 500 area residents will be evacuated during the procedure. Officials do not know how long it will take to defuse the grenades.
An autopsy completed Monday showed Tamura, an auto mechanic with the Self-Defense Force, died of blood loss from massive shrapnel wounds.
Shell fragments found near the blast were similar to 28 practice hand grenades found in Tamura’s van. Police believed Tamura bought scrap military hardware from waste disposal companies that operate on U.S. bases on Okinawa, cleaned them up and then resold them at the flea market.
Okinawa Prefectural Police set up a special investigative team to look into possible violations of Japan’s explosives control law. The team is to report to the Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office and work with prosecutors to determine the source of the explosive materials.
They are being assisted by the U.S. and Japanese military.
On Tuesday, officials from the Japan Defense Facilities Administration’s Naha Bureau, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa City government, Okinawa police and landowners posted signs urging operators of the stalls to vacate. There are about 300 stalls, most of them shoddy structures built from scrap lumber, lining Route 38 in the Shirakawa district of Okinawa City.
“This area is within the boundary of U.S. base,” one of the signs taped to a stall read in Japanese and English. “It is unlawful use of land and must be terminated immediately.”
Larger metal signs erected along the road announced in Japanese:
“This land is used for a public road under the coordination of Okinawa City and the U.S. military. It is unlawful to establish stalls along the road or dispose of trash in this area. All the stalls and trash must be removed immediately. — Okinawa City and Okinawa Prefectural Police.”
The flea market is a half-mile-long stretch that winds its way from the entrance of the Air Force’s Chibana Golf Course to the Southeast Botanical Gardens.
The road is designated by the Defense Facilities Administration Agency and U.S. Air Force as public access, but the land on both sides belongs to the air base.
The property is not currently used by the Air Force; however, tenants are allowed to operate small garden plots.
A spokesman for Okinawa City said Wednesday that the city will erect fences to block any illegal use of the roadside.
A 59-year-old man from Ginowan said the flea market is open early weekend mornings.
“I went there at 6 a.m. one Saturday just to see what it was like,” said the man, who works on a U.S. military base and asked not to be identified. “At 6 a.m., there was already a huge crowd. They sold all kinds of stuff from the stalls, which were operated by Okinawans and some Americans.”
He said most of the stalls offered new and used clothing, camping goods, food and ice cream and household items.
“At one booth, I remember seeing dud hand grenades and spent shells, empty ammo boxes, G.I. cigarette lighters and other military goods,” he said.
One of the stalls was operated by the owner of the junkyard where Tamura was killed.