Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No Helipads in Takae!: Walk for Peace in Kyoto on the 39th Anniversary of Okinawan Reversion

"Once people know what is happening in Okinawa, there is no way that they can NOT raise their voices against the bases. I came to know about the situation by chance. Now I will not stop protesting until the bases and helipads are gone and Okinawans can lead normal lives...”
Chords resounding from several Okinawan sanshins echoed through the busiest streets of Kyoto as I asked the 32-year old women pictured above why she was marching in Kyoto on Sunday. The peaceful walk, that gained smiles of encouragement from Sunday shoppers in Kyoto, was organized to raise awareness of the dangers accompanying the construction of 6 new helipads in Takae.

Although the young woman wished for her face not to appear in this picture, her message resonates nonetheless. Throughout the walk, she held up a succession of nearly 15 different placards asking passersby to imagine themselves in Okinawan shoes: How would they react if helicopters were flying over Kyoto? What do you think your friends in Okinawa would want? How would you feel if Kyoto land was constantly being gobbled up for the construction of new U.S. military bases?

Local Kyotoites march down Kawaramachi with signs reading "No Helipads in Yanbaru Forest" and "Our future is connected to Okinawa" (Courtesy of Kyoto Shinbun 5.15.2011)
The name of the organization arranging the peace walk, “People Meeting to Plan Something-like-a--demo to Raise Awareness About Takae,” sheds light on the egalitarian nature of the participants and the event. Understanding that some people hesitate to participate in protests, the group emphasizes that the gathering is more than just a demo, but a venue for sharing ideas, learning, raising our voices for what we believe in, and networking.

This was my second time to walk in Kyoto on the anniversary of the Okinawa reversion. For some walkers, this was their first time to participate in something like a demonstration. Others had organized events to support the Okinawan struggle for over 20 years, and others regularly join locals in sit-in protests in front of U.S. bases and/or their planned construction sites. The organization spreads the word about the demonstration through email, websites, and twitter.

Despite the opposition of an overwhelming majority of Okinawans to the construction of new U.S. military helipads and a new Marine base, and government promises that they would, at minimum, construct any new bases in Japan outside of Okinawan soil, the Japanese and U.S. governments are deceitfully forging on with their original plan (dating from the 1960's) s to build a base in Henoko. Not only has the U.S. erected a fence around the planned construction area for the new base in ecologically fragile Oura Bay, but also construction of 75-meter in diameter helipads has already begun. In 1996 the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed at the Special Action Committee on Okinawa to add an additional 6 new helipads to the 15 helipads already menacing residents in Higashi Village near the U.S. Northern Training Area, a facility where the U.S. military tested napalm and trained soldiers in "jungle" warfare.

Not only are the helipads a source of intense sound pollution, but crashes of the accident-prone V-22 Osprey that the 6 new helipads are planned to accommodate, have already killed 34 people in the United States and Afghanistan. How many more fatal accidents must there be before the endangered Osprey is no longer used?

"No helipads in Takae!"

Furthermore, the Yanbaru forest, where the U.S. wants to build the new helipads, is home to over 4,000 different species of wildlife, many of them endangered. Construction of the helipads is temporarily on hold until July 1 due to the breeding season of the critically endangered Okinawan rail. Residents and their Japanese and international supporters are taking the pause in construction as an opportunity to push even harder for a permanent end to the imposition of the helipads.

In the months leading up to the construction, locals and their allies led peaceful sit-in protests, interrupted by questionable police arrests. On December 22, 2011, a US helicopter hovered so close to the sit-in-tent that it was blown over. However, resistance continue, and Okinawa Peace Walk, held in Nago City on Sunday, attracted over 3,200 participants. As a part of this action, 150 demonstrators attached banners reading “No More Bases” and “Protect Biodiversity” on the fence at Henoko Bay (See previous Ten Thousand Things post on the 39th Anniversary of the Revision of Okinawa).

The Okinawan rail, or as known locally, the Yanbaru Kuina
In Japan, groups such as US for Okinawa and Kyoto Action are also working to spread awareness and pressure the U.S. and Japanese governments to listen to the Okinawan people. US for Okinawa arranges study tours in Okinawa while Kyoto Action holds weekly Saturday rallies in the heart of the Kyoto shopping district to raise awareness of the U.S. bases in Okinawa, participated in the demonstration. The international Network for Okinawa, based in the United States, brings representatives from peace groups together to “protect Okinawa’s environment, culture, and people’s lives from the bases.” A list of organizations that belong to the network may be found here.

The Twitter account for "Something-like-a-Demo for Takae (Takae Demomitai)" served to notify people about the gathering, yet continues to provide useful and sometimes fun updates on the situation in Takae and in greater Okinawa:

[Spread the Word] We are opposed to the construction of the helipads in Higashi Village, Takae, Okinawa Prefecture, the place known to be the habitat of the Yanbaru Kuina (Okinawan Rail). On the 15th of May we will gather together to demonstrate, raise our voices, stroll through town? Meet at 3pm along the river at Sanjo. We start walking at 5. Hope you can make it! We will also be selling books about Okinawa. (May 2)

[Spread the Word] Petition campaign for President Obama to stop construction of the helipads in Takae! The petition is in English, but you just need to enter your name and other details. (May 5)

The Takae something-like-a-demo has begun! People are starting to gather together and it is getting lively.(May 15)

It looks like there were 50 participants in "Something-Like-a-Demo. Future plans for "Something-Like-a-Demo"- Let's make the Yanabaru Forest APPEAR?! in Kyoto. We'll dress in costumes, or maybe do cos-play? Oh! Sounds like fun! Getting excited! (May 16)

Mr. Isa from the Group against Helipads in Takae reports that during the government's construction of the helipads in January and February, there was extensive tree trimming. Now the calls of the Okinawan rail and their nests are nowhere to be heard or seen. This is blatant destruction of the environment. (May 16)
In a democracy, legitimate political power stems from the citizenry, however, the demands for no more bases by the majority of Okinawan people are being ignored. Allies of the Okinawan people continue to work in solidarity so that the Okinawan voices can be heard. Through these demonstrations, peace walks, gatherings, whatever you call them, may our collective voices reach the ears of the U.S. and Japanese governments.

- Posted by Jen Teeter

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