Okinawan begins hunger strike to protest plans for new base

By CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2004

NAHA, Okinawa — A 64-year-old Okinawa woman has begun a hunger strike to oppose plans to build a new Marine air station in the waters off northwest Okinawa.

Yoko Yamaguchi, of Ginowan, is one of a group of protesters who since April have staged a sit-in at the port in Henoko, where the new base is to be built. She now has decided, she said, to take the battle against the new base to the Okinawa office of the Japanese agency in charge of construction.

On Nov. 29, she sat down in front of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency’s Bureau along Highway 58, near the Aja port, and vowed not to eat until Tokyo stops boring holes into the seabed as part of an environmental survey.

It’s the latest move in the protesters’ attempts to halt construction of an airport planned to replace Futenman Marine Corps Air Station, located in the heart of the city of Ginowan.

“Everybody is making a desperate struggle out in the ocean to stop the drilling survey,” Yamaguchi said Thursday afternoon, but the protesters so far have failed to stop the survey. “After all, before the vast power of the national government, our struggle is like a war of ants against a huge elephant,” she said. “Everyone is so worn out after from the protest — day in and day out. So, I thought hard about what I could do and came up with the idea of a hunger strike.

“It is important to let as many people as possible know what’s going on out in the sea off Henoko,” she said.

In 1996, the United States and Japanese governments agreed to close Futenma MCAS in urban Ginowan once an alternate site could be provided. Eventually, a plan to build an airport on reclaimed land and a reef about two miles offshore was chosen. To be attached by causeway to the Marines’ Camp Schwab, it was to be used jointly by civilian aircraft.

Japanese environmental regulations require that a seabed survey precede construction, but the Henoko sit-in delayed test drilling for seven months.

The survey requires putting up some 30 platforms to be used as work stations. Several platforms have been erected so far. Protesters, a mix of anti-base activists, local residents and environmentalists, have responded by surrounding the platforms with small boats and trying to climb them. Following several pushing and shoving incidents between the protesters and the workers, the Japanese coast guard warned both sides to avoid violence but said it has no plans for immediate legal action against either faction.

Yamaguchi, meanwhile, said she began her hunger strike at the Japanese agency in charge of construction because “This is the place where the main culprit is. I will sit here as far as my strength will take me.”

On Thursday she was joined by Hiroo Naganuma, a Buddhist monk from Ginoza. He also vowed to not eat.

Because of an approaching storm, work in the water was called off Thursday and several of the Henoko protesters joined Yamaguchi and the monk to show their support.

Etsumi Tairabori, 70, said it was a nice change from the daily confrontations in the water.

“The workers are intimidating, but they cannot stop me,” she said. “It has been a life-threatening experience for me” — she learned to paddle a canoe only recently — “but I am not going to quit it. If I cannot stop them from making a new military base, what’s the meaning of my life?”

Yoko Yamaguchi, 64, from Ginowan, is staging a hunger strike in front of the Defense Facilities Administration Naha Bureau to protest the planned construction of a Marine Corps air station in the waters off northeast Okinawa.

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