How to Sink a War Machine

Image of a shrine at the edge of the ocean
Seeing Ryukyu: Image of Ourawan shrine in Henoko of Nago on Okinawa. Ryugushin is the god of the sea and of women, and one of the “ultimate ancestors” who give life in Ryukyuan tradition. Today, Rugushin watches the U.S. military base Camp Schwab steal, pollute, and expand across the land of her children.
Feminists fight U.S. bases in Okinawa

By Maia Hibbett

Photos By Chinen Aimi

Suzuyo Takazato apologized for being tired for our interview, then talked for almost two hours straight. It was 9 a.m. on a Thursday in Okinawa last November, and she had spent the previous day leading a protest at the site of a planned U.S. military base. Since construction kicked off in 2014, an evolving crew of protesters has demonstrated there regularly, with leaders cycling through in turns. Takazato, 81, takes Wednesdays. It’s her weekly shift.

In Henoko, a small fishing district in the northern Okinawan city of Nago, protesters confront the war machine by land and by sea. The land bastion gathers before the gates of the site where the Japanese government is building a new base for the U.S. military, adding to 31 other military installations in the 879-square-mile multi-island prefecture of Okinawa. They stand or sit cross-legged or bring folding chairs, then jump up when a vehicle rolls through, attempting to block trucks carrying gravel with their bodies while shouting slogans like “No base!” and “Marines go home!” The protesters, many of them elderly, write similar phrases on colorful ribbons and tie them to the fence. 

The ocean unit paddles out into the teal waters of Oura Bay, sending the same message on written signs and over bullhorns from a mixed fleet of kayaks and small motorboats. The water protesters typically wear masks, hats, and sunglasses, combining safety with obscurity, as they are the group more likely to break the rules. Kayakers have been known to slip past prohibitive buoys, paddling right into the military’s construction zone. 

“It has been seven years already that we have been protesting the construction of the new base at Henoko,” Takazato told me. But in many ways, the base represents an end point to decades of resistance by the first generation of postwar feminists, who have dedicated themselves to the project of opposing the U.S. military’s omnipresence in the Pacific. For seven years in the 1980s, Takazato was a social worker, meeting with women who performed sex work for U.S. service members. Almost without exception, she said, the women came with stories of strangulation by American troops, many of whom were Vietnam veterans who had post-traumatic stress disorder. The women’s experiences fueled Takazato’s conviction that the anti-war movement should be framed as a feminist issue, but this feminism should recognize that women aren’t the only victims. Amid the war machine, she told me, “individual soldiers, human beings, become military weapons.” 

Takazato’s politics gained her popular support, and she was elected to serve four terms as a city councilor in Naha, Okinawa’s capital. She helped establish the prefecture’s first rape crisis center, which still exists, and in 1995 traveled to Beijing to present at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women. She and a few fellow activists performed a silent play that illustrated events dating back to the era of colonization when Japan made the once-independent Ryukyu Kingdom its prefecture. The play covered the 1853 rape of a Ryukyuan woman by a U.S. sailor, out on an exploratory mission to “open” East Asian islands to the West; Imperial Japan’s 1879 annexation of the Ryukyu Islands, the archipelago that became Okinawa prefecture; the bloody World War II Battle of Okinawa, when Japan stationed its troops in the more remote and recent prefecture, inviting an Allied attack that killed up to a third of the civilian population; and the post-war occupation of Okinawa by the United States, which lasted until 1972, during which time the world’s foremost military superpower established a network of bases that it maintains to this day. In each of these cases, Takazato and the other players emphasized the military machine’s constant offenses of violence against Okinawan women.

While Takazato was in Beijing, three U.S. Marines raped and brutalized a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. It was September 1995, and Takazato had just returned home when she heard the news. She busied herself organizing protests, and soon the outcry across the prefecture was massive. “In fact,” writes Akemi Johnson in her book Night in the American Village, “you could credit Suzuyo [Takazato] with setting off Okinawa’s third major anti-base movement, which uses as its fuel U.S. military violence against women.”

The governments of the United States and mainland Japan, often accustomed to ignoring prefectural upset, felt in this case pressured to respond. In April 1996, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto issued a joint statement promising to “reduce the burden” of U.S. military bases on Okinawa. They vowed to close the dangerous Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — responsible for helicopter crashes, excruciating noise pollution, and water contamination from carcinogenic chemical dumping in the populous central city of Ginowan — within five to seven years, though the base remains open into the present. But in the same breath, as Takazato put it to me, the two leaders “cleverly” reasserted their commitment to the Japan-U.S. military partnership. Though they heralded a base closure, what they really offered was a relocation. When Futenma closed, a new base would open — this one, conveniently, located where no human has ever lived, in the waters north of Nago, among rare corals and seagrasses off the coast of Henoko.

A photo of two helicopters flying over a vast plane by the ocean
Indigenous Ryukyu religion reveres the island’s nature, community, and family as gods. Every natural site — protruding rock, cliff, cave, cove, forest, stream, river, spring — is a place for worship. The island structures here represent resistance to colonizing forces. U.S. military helicopters use the whole island as their flight zone for endless training, often in pairs, doubling their sonic impact. Military aircraft occupy the sacred heavens every 10 to 15 minutes as the locals tune out the reminder of World War II.

Today, even those in favor of a U.S. military buildup say that the planned base at Henoko will be, in the words of one international military strategist, “obsolete before construction is even finished.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded last year that “it appears unlikely that this will ever be completed.” The plan has been flawed all along: Drilling surveys have found that the seafloor in Oura Bay is “soft as mayonnaise,” and, simply put, too weak to support airplane runways and combat loading zones. Nevertheless, U.S. leaders had wanted a base there for decades before they announced it — at least since 1966, when Okinawa was still under U.S. administration, according to declassified congressional and defense memos. And unless activists prevail, the landfill will continue.

The irony, Takazato told me, is that the Henoko project was offered as a solution to feminist protest. “That’s the real reason for this new construction of Henoko,” she said. “It’s based on violence against girls.” 

While violence against girls remains both a compelling public motivator and a formidable threat, it no longer stands alone as the animus for activism against the construction in Henoko, in particular. The current opposition to the base may see its best chance in environmental objections, a growing Indigenous rights sensibility among Okinawans, and a broad anti-imperialist politics wary of military buildup from superpowers in the East and West alike. The shifting threads of Okinawan activism pose a question about the way feminism enters into anti-imperialist struggles writ large: Feminism has long had a principal role in such movements, both because of the specifics of violence perpetrated by service members and because of the early feminist belief that women were inherently more peaceful and therefore the natural standard-bearers of the anti-war movement. As this gender-essentialist logic has fallen out of style, so has the prominence of feminism in many anti-imperialist struggles. Couple that with the fact that feminism has been tarnished globally by its invocation as a justification for war and colonization — as in Gayatri Spivak’s famous “white men saving brown women from brown men” construct — and you might find yourself asking, does feminism still have something to add here?

Henoko, population 1,700, already has one military base. It’s called Camp Schwab, and it’s one of the earliest U.S. military outposts that remains in Okinawa today. Established in 1957, while the U.S. governed the Ryukyu Islands, it sits on the site of a former internment camp where American administrators corralled Okinawan civilians in the immediate postwar period, containing the locals while the U.S. weighed how to best outfit its war prize for its military apparatus. 

Islandwide, activists had begun registering their disapproval of the U.S. occupation — the first of the “major anti-base movements” that Johnson references in her book. But in Henoko, local leaders were ultimately convinced that the new base would bring economic opportunity to an impoverished area, and they hesitantly accepted the U.S. administration’s plans. The resulting base, Camp Schwab, already takes up 5,000 acres in Nago, spilling from Henoko into neighboring villages. With that space claimed, the new base is set to be built on land that doesn’t exist yet. The ongoing project is to dump landfill into the waters of Oura Bay, home to uncommonly large blue coral colonies and beds of seagrass that feed the Okinawa dugong, a critically endangered manatee relative.

Anti-base activists have taken biodiversity up as a key argument against the construction. While Takazato focuses on violence against women, her friend Hideki Yoshikawa, an anthropologist and the director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project, manages the environmental front, waging legal battles in U.S. courts to argue that the project violates federal regulations. Outside the construction site’s gates, demonstrators carry stuffed animals and banners bearing illustrations of the dugong, its placid face a sort of mascot. In the U.S., it pops up at solidarity protests; an activist friend of mine has a lustrous plush dugong that she wears as a hat.

But such symbols are not universally popular. In his book Okinawa and the U.S. Military, anthropologist Masamichi S. Inoue charts how local opposition to the second Henoko base construction rose in the 1990s — and then fizzled out. The citizens’ movement in Nago, the main city to which Henoko is attached, “successfully extended Okinawa’s historical anti-military and anti-Tokyo sentiment into the globalized language of democracy, peace, women’s issues, and the environment,” he writes. But the movement’s early gains “paradoxically spelled its own defeat … in their emphasis on the middle-class, citizenry values of ecology, women’s issues, and peace, the anti-base movement may have ‘gone global’ to such an extent that it became detached from and even offended the experiences and cultural sensibilities of financially insecure local residents.” In his seven years immersed in Henoko and its snarling politics, Inoue heard testimonies from pro-base residents like “if we had jobs, we would not invite the base, such a noisy thing,” and “our lives are more important than the dugong’s.” 

A chain link fence divivdes a grassy area from a a road
U.S. military bases are scattered all over Okinawa. This fence extends down to the beach in Yomitan alongside natives’ homes, reminding them everyday how their ancestral land has been forcefully taken under the pretense of democracy. Within the base is a private beach — a luxury amenity exclusively for U.S. service members and their families. At the Marine Corps Base Smedley D. Butler, there are facilities designed for the families of service members who work within neighboring bases; Camp McTureous, for instance, is equipped with residences, gyms and sports fields, and an elementary school, offering a mini-America for the comfortable colonization of another country free of conscience.

Whether with pride or resignation, the people living closest to the bases often say that they have learned to coexist with the military: forming friendships, securing jobs, or just figuring out how to live in its vicinity. This notion is serviced for a pro-base narrative primarily embraced by the political right wing, including Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, who argue that the anti-base crowd is out of touch, consumed by worldly concerns and bused in from elsewhere in the prefecture to stage sit-ins. 

For decades, Okinawa has seen a constant jockeying between anti-base proponents of peace and environmental stewardship and pro-base advocates of economic development and alignment with the conservative politics of mainland Japan. This dynamic is apparent in local politics: In February 2018, Nago voters elected the pro-base Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi, an LDP-backed ally of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who promised to usher the military buildup, and in August of the same year, Okinawa Prefecture voters elected the anti-base Governor Denny Tamaki, who vowed to stop it. This January, Toguchi  won a second term, defeating an anti-war challenger from the left; in February, local media reported Tamaki would be seeking a second term too.

Some locals have bought into the idea that the U.S. base presence is necessary to counter the rise of China, especially as tensions with the functionally-but-not-technically independent Taiwan have grown more fraught, driving many to fear that China will stake a military claim on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which lie between Taiwan and Okinawa. The logic of empire encourages military buildup in response to this anxiety, as if a new base would secure the island rather than endanger it. By contrast, many anti-base thinkers in Okinawa “reason the U.S. military presence acts not as a deterrent, but as a bullseye,” in Johnson’s words. Many of the proponents of peace on Okinawa are elderly: They remember World War II, when the concentration of Japanese troops drew the fighting to the prefecture instead of fending it off. The Japanese central government has by and large tried to erase this reality, issuing textbooks for the prefecture’s public schools that contain nothing about the three-month Battle of Okinawa. The United States sees no reason to offer a reminder.

A photo of a sign that reads" COMBAT TOWN" in front fenced off beach plants
On a route leading north to the Yambaru region of Okinawa island, U.S. military signs point to training grounds called Combat Town. Within these training grounds are models of “third-world villages” for the edification of young American soldiers. Little do the soldiers know that the colonized mountains are a sacred prayer site that once provided fresh spring water that sustained the Indigenous community for generations prior to World War II.

“This is one of the hardest times politically to be doing this work,” said Margo Okazawa-Rey, a founder of the Black socialist feminist Combahee River Collective and a member, with Takazato, of the International Women’s Network Against Militarism. She said the “dualistic thinking” that posits the U.S. and China against each other as forces of good versus evil — however you allocate those roles — endangers the anti-war movement, as people see themselves as subjects of defined nations rather than members of a natural and, well, globalized network of life.

“It’s either China or the U.S. — and of course, it isn’t,” Okazawa-Rey told me. “This is where feminist politics, I think, can be really helpful … because as we’re trying to create changes, we have to also be behaving in ways that we’re not gonna end up recreating something that we’re trying to change.”

Okazawa-Rey points to a bind that has long ensnared revolutionary and resistance movements. “We need to have more coalitional politics that are transnational,” she said, explaining that feminist activists need to shake off the seductive appeal to nationalism that often accompanies the use of Spivak’s classic quote. Her network instead asks, “What are the life-sustaining forces that we need to support?” Okazawa-Rey advocates a “feminist spending spree,” addressing the sorts of public services and sources of prosperity civilians could access if their governments would reallocate massive military budgets.

Okazawa-Rey said that her network — which in addition to Okinawa features activists from South Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, among others — is not only international but intergenerational, and that it would be wrong to map an age-based split onto the contours of their politics. But within Okinawa, the anti-base movement is undoubtedly dominated by elders, like Takazato, who rattled off nearly two centuries of history when I asked for the latest since 1995. You have to be at least 80 to have much memory of World War II, so it falls on older activists to keep the atrocities from fading over time. It’s not unreasonable to fear for the movement’s fate as the war survivors die out.

But there are younger people learning their history and rejecting the logic of the war machine. In Night in the American Village, Johnson speaks with an indigo farmer from Nakijin, where a portion of my family is from, in the north like Henoko but on the opposite coast. In her late 20s, the farmer joined the older generation at the sit-ins. “Her farmwork wasn’t directly related to the bases,” Johnson writes, “but she saw everything on the island as connected. Filling in the bay would disrupt the delicate cycle of life.”

Many younger Okinawans don’t remember a time before the current base project, much less the destruction of war. They might, however, become increasingly wary of the “bullseye” effect. In a recent Marine Corps-approved column for The Hill, a lieutenant colonel warned that “it is not unreasonable to think that Okinawa could find itself caught in the proverbial crosshairs,” between the U.S. and China, opining that Marines “willing to die” for national security might think twice about bringing their families with them upon relocation to Okinawa. He makes no mention of local civilians — who have, by and large, registered their disapproval with the military presence in referendum after referendum.

And, of course, there’s the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, during which military superspreader events organized around U.S. holidays (Christmas, the Fourth of July) have occurred with now-predictable familiarity, launching Okinawa into a state of emergency during the recent surge of the omicron variant. (The official stance of the U.S. and Japanese governments has often been that there is no demonstrable relationship between the booming clusters of coronavirus cases that pop up among U.S. service members after their festivities and the spread that ensues among the largely elderly Okinawan civilian population.)

A view of a Okinawan road leading to the ocea with two red gated shrines
Torii are Japanese traditional gates often placed at the entrance of Shinto shrines. Torii signify the transition between worlds, and into a sacred space. For the U.S. military to install a Torii pathway reveals a profound and ethnocentric disrespect. The two flags represent Japan and the U.S. as a colonizing partnership of the Ryukyu islands.

The urgency of these threats may be enough to keep enthusiasm up for the environmental angle of opposition — which might yet deal a death blow to the construction. The Japanese and U.S. government’s steamrolling of any attempted environmental stewardship has often represented the type of disregard for Okinawan autonomy that tends to rile locals. Last July, for example, Tamaki revoked a permit to “relocate” endangered coral colonies in Oura Bay; in January, the Japanese minister of fisheries overrode his decision. And in November, news broke that the Japanese government knew about the bay’s soft seafloor for years longer than it let on and still tried to pursue a flawed construction plan on sinking soil. This wasn’t a shock to Yoshikawa, of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project, but he told me that activists, if they play up the popular mistrust of the government’s deception, “could make it a big deal.”

Perhaps, in this case, the most powerful protest will turn out to be the Earth’s own. The potential toll in the meantime is unquestionable: Empire can murder more girls, spread more disease, and drive the last dugongs to extinction — all the while making a shiny war magnet more attractive. But the base could still sink into the sea.

Correction: This story originally mischaracterized the September 1995 attack on the 12-year-old Okinawan girl as a murder. In fact, the girl survived.

Maia Hibbett is a journalist and an editor at The Intercept.

Artist statement from Chinen Aimi: My project 琉球探し: Ryukyu-Sagashi: Finding Ryukyu involves anthropological research into Okinawa’s religion, language, history, and environment through the lense of documentary photography. I sift through the layers of meaning on the island, uncovering what my matrilineal ancestors knew and what has been buried by colonizing forces. I want my images to capture the ghost of Ryukyu so that I may one day fully learn to speak the words I was not taught: the language of peacekeeping embedded in the island’s natural landscape. By inscribing images of the landscape, memorials, and plant life with schematics of transliterated and translated Ryukyu terms, I relate my photos to little-known Ryukyuan histories of ancestor-worship, culture, land, and philosophy, and reflect on shifting meanings.