Anti-US military protests attract thousands in Naha, Tokyo
June 19, 2016
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — An overflow crowd of some 65,000 people packed a sports stadium Sunday to demand that U.S. forces leave Okinawa and drop a plan to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a more remote area on the island.
Similar demonstrations were also scheduled in 41 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. More than 7,000 people gathered outside the Japanese parliament building in Tokyo to join the demand for a U.S. pullout and to bash Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
A recent rash of crimes, including the slaying of a 20-year-old woman that has been linked to a U.S. civilian base worker, have tapped into Okinawa resentment over the disproportionate number of U.S. troops here, compared with the rest of Japan, and a sense of abandonment and betrayal by the central government even after it regained control of the island in 1972.
With U.S. servicemembers, family members and others with SOFA status strongly encouraged to avoid the protest area, Gov. Takeshi Onaga called for a total withdrawal of Marines.
“I will never forgive the inhumane and brutal act that trampled women’s human rights. I am indignant,” said Onaga, who won election on an anti-base platform.
Speaker after speaker made emotionally charged addresses at Onoyama Stadium in Naha that had a couple of Japanese reporters crying.
“We have endured cruel treatment for 70 years, even after the reversion of the island,” a student said in English after speaking to the crowd in Japanese. “We want this country to be your friends, your neighbors. But we want the bases to be gone. This is not how we want our country to be.”
Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine added “Nothing has changed” in the decades since World War II, when Okinawa was devastated during a protracted battle after an invasion by U.S. troops who then took control of the island.
Suzuyo Takazato, co-representative of an anti-military women’s group, Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, read a letter written by the father of Rina Shimabukuro, 20, who was found dead in an Okinawa forest a month after she disappeared in April.
In the letter, he lamented his loss and the suffering of other victims of U.S. servicemember crimes. Kenneth Franklin Gadson, a civilian base worker and former Marine who goes by his wife’s family name, Shinzato, is suspected by Japanese authorities of killing Shimabukuro while seeking a stranger to rape.
“Why did my daughter have to be a victim?” her father said in the letter. “Why was it her? Why did she have to be killed? I now share the sorrow and pains that countless number of families have felt in the past.” Morimasa Goya, chairman of the Kariyushi Corporate group, said he would do all it takes to fulfill the wish of the victim’s father — to make his daughter the last victim.
“Today is Father’s Day. Had it not been for the brutal murder, the victim’s family would be enjoying a happy day today,” Goya said.
Onaga said he visited the site where Shimabukuro’s body was found to offer flowers and apologized for not being able to protect her.
He said when three servicemembers raped a Japanese schoolgirl in 1995, he vowed to not let such a thing happen again, “but I could not change the political system to prevent it,” Onaga said.
Demonstrators at the Japanese parliament building in Tokyo chanted: “Don’t forgive the murder of the woman,” and “Return her life.”
“These incidents happen as long as there are bases,” Nahoko Hishiyama, one of the organizers, told the crowd. “Our peace comes at the expense of Okinawa.”
Much of the sentiment there was against the prime minister, who was depicted on a number of posters as Adolf Hitler. Participants blamed Abe for the recent incidents on Okinawa by allowing the U.S. military to be stationed in Japan.
“Let’s all join to bring down Abe administration, which is the root of all evil,” said Ken Takada, a representative of one of the organizing groups. In Okinawa, Onaga criticized the Abe government for its insistence that the new airfield at Henoko is the “only solution” to the issue of Futenma’s location in a heavily populated area.
“There is a high wall that divides us and the central government. … I am resolved to (do) my best to tear down the wall,” Onaga said.
The long-simmering resentment toward the central government was also clear.
“We, Okinawa people, have harbored a sense of mistrust toward people in the mainland,” said Shizuo Toma, 72, of Naha, who echoed statements by many people who want want to see all Marines leave Okinawa. “The mistrust will not go away easily.”
An American, Bill O’Donnell, a 72-year-old former Navy petty officer 3rd class who lives on Okinawa after being stationed here in 1969-70, watched the speeches and said: “We should go home. We should have gone home” in 1972.
“This used to be the 'Keystone of the Pacific,'" said O’Donnell, of Geneva, N.Y. “It isn’t anymore.”
People started arriving two hours before the 2 p.m. scheduled start of the Okinawa protest and soon packed the stadium’s seats, infield and back walls. Hundreds more were turned away to watch outside on video monitors.
An estimated 200 media from all over Japan also were on hand, and news helicopters buzzed overhead. Organizers placed the number of protesters at 65,000.
Onaga got a strong ovation as he arrived and after every pause in his speech.
Following the rally, he told reporters that Okinawa’s people’s anger has reached its end.
“To not let it be repeated again, I will demand a drastic change in the status of forces agreement, withdrawal of Marines and reduction in the military presence” on Okinawa, Onaga said. “This is my unwavering determination.”
A resolution was submitted along the same lines.
The demonstrations were sparked by the series of crimes that have inflamed emotions on Okinawa — home to more than half of all U.S. servicemembers in Japan — and elsewhere.
Shimabukuro’s slaying, the rape of a Japanese woman by a Navy sailor and a wrong-way crash by another sailor that has been linked to DUI, led to tightened alcohol and liberty restrictions for U.S. troops and tainted President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Japan last month where he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima.
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.