It’s a blistering hot day when Japanese Coast Guard officers pack into a dozen black Zodiac inflatable boats, determined to deter yet another wave of protestors. The enforcers are dressed in all-black dive gear with black facemasks, sunglasses, and helmets. Cameras mounted on their shoulders record protesters floating in kayaks alongside small motorboats flying rainbow peace flags over Okinawa’s Oura Bay. After a tense hour, the protesters rally. Some paddle their kayaks over the orange buoys that act as a barrier, while others swim beneath it, racing toward a four-legged platform used for sea floor construction. The Coast Guard quickly surrounds and apprehends the protestors, hauling them back to the shore.
The floating orange buoys at Oura Bay mark one of three places in the sparsely populated district of Henoko, where these forces have been facing off regularly since 2004. This clash is centered on the fact that the buoys form the exclusion barrier where a new U.S. military base, the Futenma Replacement Facility, is slated to be built in order to relocate an existing base, the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, which has been in service since 1945. The move towards re-militarizing Oura Bay has returned to Japanese and American foreign policy agendas as tensions continue to rise among Asian countries over territorial claims on the South China Sea.
After World War II, the United States entered into an occupation of Japan, leading to the independence of the country under specific conditions. One of those conditions was that the U.S. military continue its rule of Okinawa—the archipelago of islands south of mainland Japan—which kept the main Japanese islands largely free of U.S. military presence. A 1960 treaty upheld that division, confirming the U.S. occupation of Okinawa and its use of bases elsewhere in the country. Because of this agreement, Okinawa is home to nearly 75 percent of all U.S. bases (there are 32 bases on the island) and about half the troops in Japan—this despite the fact that Okinawa accounts for less than 1 percent of Japanese territory. To put this into perspective, Okinawa Island is almost 20 percent smaller than Kaua‘i, yet the island is home to nearly 1.4 million people. To the north and south of the Henoko-Oura area are the Central and Northern Training Areas, which occupy more than 37,000 acres, including training grounds for urban and jungle warfare and 59 military landing zones.
Like Hawai‘i, Okinawa is a tropical archipelago endowed with rich biodiversity and an indigenous population deeply connected to the land. Along Oura Bay’s shoreline, legions of tiny blue soldier crabs march across the mud, black-naped terns nest, and stark white egrets search for food. Silky grey mudskippers, a critically endangered species, and more than 2,000 species of mollusk rely on these same tidal flats for their survival. Oura Bay is also home to at least 10 species of sea grass that attract dugong, a large, lumpy marine mammal similar to a manatee that has been red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “vulnerable.” Sensitive to noise, it appears that the dugong may have already left the bustling area.
A variety of flora and fauna thrives in, and may disappear from, the area—a region which includes fringing coral reefs, mangrove swamps, mud flats, estuaries, and a rugged shoreline dotted with rocky outcrops and white coral sand beaches. “It’s just stunning,” says marine biologist Katherine Muzik, who lived in Okinawa for 11 years and dove extensively throughout the Okinawan archipelago. “The bay is on par with the best marine environments in Indonesia and the Great Barrier Reef,” she says. Muzik notes the more than 400 species of coral, a thousand species of fish, and 110 species of sea slugs present in the bay, explaining that “there’s nothing left like it in the entire [Okinawan] archipelago, which means there’s nothing left like it in all of Japan.”
At Cape Henoko, which juts into the bay, 21 million cubic meters of sand and soil are scheduled to be dumped in order to reclaim land for a new base. Environmentalists argue that this act would destroy the ecosystem. Henoko’s depths, which reach almost 200 feet, are one of the distinctive qualities that give the locale such biodiversity. Millions of tons of sand would alter the bay’s currents, which, in turn, would affect the amount of sunlight that penetrates the water, drastically altering its clarity and imperiling what Muzik calls “soaring cathedrals of blue coral.”
A dive team called Snack Snufkin has taken up the responsibility of documenting the rich marine life of the bay through its website ourawan.com, as well as informational brochures, photo exhibitions, and a new educational book. Botanist and diver Kenta Watanabe, a member of the dive team, says the group wants to use its scientific findings to educate the public on the uniqueness of the bay. “It provides many good habitats for various species,” Watanabe says. “The diversity of topography supports the diversity of marine creatures. We’ve found this place is very special.”
These divers aren’t the only people concerned over the Henoko plan. In 2013, the Ecological Society of Japan sent a letter to the Japanese Ministers of Defense and Environment requesting that the survey work for Henoko be stopped. Last year, 19 Japanese scientific organizations also signed a joint petition calling for the conservation of Oura Bay’s significantly high biological diversity. Polls consistently show the Henoko plan—with its proposed multiple helipads, 892-foot military-grade docking facilities, fuel and ammunition depots, and 5,900-foot V-shaped dual runways—is fiercely opposed by the majority of Okinawans.
The U.S. military says base opponents are in the minority, and insists that the American bases are vital to regional stability and the “common defense of Japan.” Speaking at Futenma air base, a Marine spokesman stressed the military’s role in providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief in places like the Philippines, Nepal, and elsewhere. Thousands of Japanese and Okinawans are also either employed by the U.S. military or work in fields that rely on its presence, including employment that ranges from working as private security guards to pouring concrete, providing heavy equipment, and installing and maintaining miles of fences that surround military sites.
Others in Okinawa welcome the U.S. presence for fear of China or North Korea, although many reject this stance, pointing rather to a centuries-long history when Okinawa had peaceful and prosperous relations with China during the period prior to Japan absorbing what was then the independent Ryukyu kingdom in the 1870s. Also, many Okinawans draw attention to the fact that the Chinese are already in Okinawa—doing business and supporting the tourism sector.
From an island perspective, this foreign military occupation is something with which many in Hawai‘i can relate. Our islands are home to one of the world’s largest Okinawan diaspora communities, and share long-established and cultural ties with Okinawa. It’s natural that the two island peoples have an affinity for and understanding of one another. In July 2015, Okinawa and Hawai‘i celebrated 30 years of sister-state relations. Okinawa is a place where the land and sea coexist in a fragile balance, one that is constantly challenged by external forces. We in Hawai‘i have seen this struggle play out within places of similar ecological fragility, like Mākua Valley, Kaho‘olawe, Pōhakuloa, and Ke Awalau o Pu‘uloa, which was transformed from the “breadbasket of O‘ahu,” a place of aquatic abundance, into what we all know it as today: Pearl Harbor. Like these sites, Oura Bay now finds itself similarly perched upon the edge of an uncertain future.
This story is part of our The Sea issue.