By ANDRE VLTCHEK
It is all about barbed wire, warnings and checkpoints. And to make it worse, Futenma air force base is right in the middle of an extremely densely populated urban area.
Several middle-aged Japanese citizens are besieging the sedans and SUV’s driven by the US military personnel who are leaving their barracks for an outing. As cars are waiting at the intersection to join the traffic flow on the main road, elderly men and women, clench their fists, shouting slogans and waving their posters. There is a lone Japanese cop making sure that nothing goes wrong. But everything is orderly, a routine.
“Close down the base!” Scream the demonstrators. “US army – out of Okinawa!”
American GI’s and military pilots avert their eyes. It is all somehow embarrassing. It is not like these American bombers and top guns are facing some stone-throwing body builders or aces from the local karate club. These ageing people, vocal adversaries of the Empire, can do no harm to the soldiers or to their vehicles; they could probably not even be able to kill a fly.
I approach one of the leaders of this small group of protesters. The lady puts down her placard and listens to my questions, attentively. It is all so Japanese! I hand her my name card, with both hands; she, with both hands, accepts it. We bow to each other.
“Miyoko-san”, I begin. “What is it exactly that irks you about this base?”
“It is so noisy and so dangerous”, she replies. “There are all sorts of terribly treacherous airplanes flying from Futenma. We are never consulted. We are not informed.”
I drive a bit further from Naha, to the tall Matsuki Building. It hosts several nightclubs on its premises; probably whorehouses, too, that come to life at night. However, during the day this entire structure is quiet and empty. And, by Japanese standards, it is very dingy. I take the elevator to the top floor, and climb onto the roof, stopping next to an enormous Canon security camera. All of a sudden, the Futenma base is in front of me.
This place feels insane: nobody really cares what I am doing. No guards, no deterrence. I just take out my video and still cameras and begin working.
It is all so easy, so uneventful, that one feels almost ‘disappointed’. There is no security drama, no charade.
I hear the engines, and look up towards the sky. A four-engine Hercules turns abruptly towards the runway, then literally drops from the sky, levels up at the last moment, then touches down, rolls for a few seconds down the runway, then takes off again: ‘touch and go’ maneuver. I film it. Then I film another airplane, and then another.
I call my film editor in Tokyo.
“It all looks and feels weird”, I tell him.
“Like some Third World country?” he volunteers.
“Yes”, I confirm. “But that’s not all. It is all totally spooky. With this new administration and the passionate love boleros it sings to US… All this can of course, easily trigger WWIII. These bases are actually here, most likely, to trigger a conflict… to provoke China or North Korea, or both. Yet it is all so quiet and serene and in open.“
“That’s Okinawa”, my editor confirms.
In his recent article, which appeared in the Australian magazine Arena, a leading Australian historian and Professor Emeritus at ANU, Gavan McCormack, calls Japan “The Servile State” and The US Marine Corps based in Okinawa “a force designed for attack deep within enemy territory.” He mentions one of the best-selling books in Japan- The Truth of Postwar History–written by Magosaki Ukeru, a former head of the Intelligence and Analysis Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
…Magosaki and I also agree in seeing Okinawa, the island prefecture off the China coast where US occupation has been unbroken for sixty-seven years and where three-quarters of US military installations in Japan are concentrated, as crucial. Nowhere else can be found such a concentrated expression of the US-Japan relationship. There, the fact that the Japanese national government is determinedly servile, and that all Okinawa policy is predicated on priority to US military interests, is the inescapable reality of everyday life. Required to serve as the arch upon which the Asia-Pacific security system as a whole can rest, Okinawa became something of an Achilles heel, because it is denied the very values the alliance is supposed to uphold. Its people feel threatened, not protected, by it, and discrimination against them in the name of ‘East Asian security’ has reached the point of being no longer tolerable.
* * *
While filming the Futenma Base from the roof of the Matsuki Building is somehow tolerated, to film the Kadena Base, a monster that brought so much grief to the rest of Northeast Asia during the Korean War, is something that is considered as thoroughly ordinary, even encouraged. The area is equipped with an open viewing terrace, which faces the runway, and comes complete with powerful coin-consuming binoculars, a coffee shop and spotless public bathrooms.
After working in India where one could not even film military ships openly docked at the Mumbai shore, Okinawa feels like other extreme: US military might here is converted into some violent tourist attraction. It draws entire groups of schoolchildren, as well as camera people and photographers, both amateur and those working for the various Japanese media outlets.
Ms. Kato is selling coffee and refreshments on the terrace. I point at the impenetrable bunkers protecting US fighter jets of the latest generation, from who knows whom, and ask her about what she thinks about all that, a horror show turned into entertainment. She replies with a pragmatic grin: “Business is great! But then, of course, as Okinawan, I despise the base.”
One has to wonder which the leading part of the sentence is.
As she speaks, a deafening thunderous sound erupts from somewhere inside the base. In anticipation of a tremendous flying monster ready to take to the air, I intuitively grab my cameras, ready to run towards the railings. But, Ms. Kato overpowers the roar, by her well-trained voice, as she shouts at me: “Relax, nothing is moving! They are just testing an engine.”
Do they do this every day? They do, as everyone in Okinawa tells me. Airplane engines are tested almost every day, sometimes until ten at night, until the eardrums of the people are ready to burst.
Driving through Okinawa, one has to be ready for truly Kafkaesque images. There are endless perimeters consisting of barbed wire and concrete pillars. Division lines are everywhere. Little wonder, as the US bases cover some 18% of the territory of the main island.
There are literally hundreds of protected gates separating the civilian world from the universe of militarized zones. There are playgrounds for American children only, right behind the gridirons, there are small arcades with Baskin Robins and Subway’s, as if those fast food joints cannot be found on the Japanese mainland territory.
There are Japanese public buses converted into vehicles designated for bussing American children to, and back from their schools. And there are Japanese fire stations, as well as US fire stations built on Japanese territory, with North American trucks and emergency phone numbers.
And there are ‘American Villages’ – depressing theme parks with the lowest grade of architecture and yet more Red Lobster’s, KFC’s, seedy bars, and some of the tackiest souvenir shops on earth. These are actually not for GI’s, but for the Japanese tourists trying to catch the glimpse of enormous flesh-and-blood American soldiers.
Influenced by the occupation forces, Okinawa has the worst food in Japan – the country famed for the finest gastronomy in the world.
Apart of one monorail line, Okinawa has no mass public transportation, yet another anomaly in a country that relies on the most intensive and efficient train network on Earth. In and outside Naha, everything moves by roads, and overwhelmingly by private vehicles. As a result, roads in the cities are often congested, and the entire Main Island has the feel of an ethnic Asian suburb somewhere in the United States.
Countless advertisements for real estate agencies seduce those who are ready to do business with the devil: “If you want to buy or sell land for military purposes, please let us know.”
Sadly, all this bad taste and militarism can be found in the middle of what once was the great Ryukyu Kingdom, known for its glorious history of five hundred years, spanning between 12th and 17th centuries. UNESCO designated several ruins of the castles and sites as world heritage. Okinawa was famous all over Asia for its advanced social structure, for its economic structure and its culture.