People stage a sit-in in front of the U.S. Marines' Camp Schwab in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 25, 2017, to protest against the Japanese government's launch of construction of seawalls for a replacement facility for the U.S. Air Station Futenma in the prefecture. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

The Only Real Solution to the “North Korea Crisis”: A Vibrant Anti-Imperialist Movement

The Okinawan people’s movement against U.S. militarism provides a roadmap for a radical, transnational resistance to war.

BY Lisa Torio

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“When you live in Okinawa, you can never quite escape the feeling of war.”

Amid escalating fighting words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the world has become increasingly fixated on North Korea’s military power. The North Korean regime’s string of long-range missile tests, paired with reports of miniaturized nuclear warheads, have brought debate over how the United States and its allies should, as The New York Times put it, “defang” Pyongyang’s missile programs. North Korea recently conducted the country’s sixth and largest nuclear test, prompting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to warn that any threat could be met with a “massive military response.” What’s rarely mentioned amid the sensationalism of “breaking news,” however, is the presence of the region’s most powerful military power: the United States.

In addition to its 6,800 nuclear warheads—compared to the 60 North Korea is said to possess—the United States has spent the better part of the century building hundreds of military installations across the Asia-Pacific region, as part of its long-standing strategy to “contain” China and North Korea. During the Cold War, stockpiles of nuclear weapons were often kept secretly at U.S. bases in South Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines and other parts of the region. As the United Nations Security Council bolsters sanctions against North Korea—which have already led to chronic food insecurity for ordinary people—the United States continues to flex its muscles through aggressive joint military drills with its allies, South Korea and Japan, along the Korean peninsula. This includes air drills with heavy bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Fear of conflict in the region is made all the more palpable under a U.S. president driven by impulse, whose reckless foreign policy has already ushered a series of horrific bombings in Afghanistan and the Middle East. With decades of propaganda stacked up against it, North Korea could become the antagonist in a familiar narrative of “regime change.” But it’s also under Trump’s presidency that transnational solidarity—spearheaded by those bearing the brunt of U.S. military hegemony—is taking root.

At the August convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) in Anaheim, Calif., a delegation of Okinawans took the stage to the strains of native song. The playful strumming of sanshin, a traditional instrument of the indigenous peoples, filled the ballroom of more than 600 workers from Asian-American and Pacific-Islander communities, many of whom danced their way through the aisles and onto the stage to join the Okinawans in celebration. As the song drew to a close, a young Okinawan activist grabbed the microphone and began a chant that grew louder and more whole as it spread across the room: “Resist, organize, fight!”

“Our people have had enough”

In July, I was sitting with some 70 Okinawan demonstrators outside the gates of Camp Schwab in Henoko, a small fishing village, where the U.S. military is building a new military base on the island. Linking arms under the scorching sun, we waited for the dump trucks to arrive as a band of Japanese riot police, just few blocks away, prepared to drag us off the road. From time to time, military trucks and armored vehicles drove past us, sandwiched between passenger cars. It’s a bizarre reality all too familiar for Okinawans, who have been fighting to defend their ancestral lands against U.S. military expansion.  

It’s been more than 1,000 days since Okinawans began staging sit-ins at the gates nearly every day, and even longer for those who have been disrupting offshore work in Oura Bay on kayaks and fishing boats. The row of makeshift resistance camps on the side of the road have become part of the landscape in Henoko, where supporters from around the world are gathering in solidarity.

In response, the Japanese government, a long-standing ally to the United States, has sent hundreds of riot police from all across Japan to break up the peaceful protests in the country’s southernmost island. In the past two years, the police have arrested dozens of anti-base demonstrators, including Yamashiro Hiroji, who was detained for five months in solitary confinement. At the sit-ins in Henoko, black-booted officers, donning sunglasses and masks, hauled elderly Okinawans while shouting at them and shoving cameras in their faces. “We will never accept discrimination like this,” Kishimoto Satsuko, an Okinawan woman and survivor of World War II, told me. “Our people have had enough.”

The islands of Okinawa, annexed by Japan in 1879, host more than 74 percent of U.S. military bases in Japan, despite being only 0.6 percent of the country. The disproportionate U.S. presence on the islands stems from Japan’s ongoing colonial legacy in Okinawa. The U.S. government has taken advantage of this legacy: Even after U.S. troops formally withdrew from Japan in 1952, it took 20 years before Okinawa was “reverted back” to Japanese rule. In Okinawa today, it’s clear the United States never really left.

While U.S. military bases make up roughly 18 percent of Okinawa’s main island, the American presence is felt everywhere—in the drone of accident-prone MV-22 Ospreys hovering over the islands. The Boeing-manufactured tiltrotor military aircraft is notorious for its slew of fatal crashes over the years, the most recent killing three U.S. Marines off the coast of Australia. Yet, despite ongoing protests against the deployment of Ospreys in Okinawa, the U.S. military continues to fly them over schools and local neighborhoods.

The Osprey embodies contemporary U.S. power: domination through omnipresence. “As a child, I remember being afraid to go outside because of the bases,” Higa Tami, an Okinawan woman who grew up near the massive U.S. Kadena Air Base, told me at the demonstrations. “When you live in Okinawa, you can never quite escape the feeling of war.”

Decades of U.S. dominance—and grassroots resistance

In the spring of 1945, Okinawa became the site of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles between the United States and Japan. That battle claimed the lives of some 150,000 Okinawans, a quarter of the population, and unleashed a humanitarian crisis that forced many of them to leave their homeland as immigrants and refugees. The collective memory of that devastating war, passed down through generations of Okinawans, sits at the heart of the struggle against U.S. military presence on the islands. “What’s happening in Syria and Iraq today happened right here in Okinawa,” Yamauchi Masaru, a 67-year-old retired dentist, told me. “If we don’t oppose the U.S. military here, we’ll be made complicit for its war crimes.”

At the onset of the Cold War, the United States made Okinawa a hub for its wars in the region. During America’s post-war military occupation, U.S. soldiers seized farmlands from local villagers using bulldozers and bayonets. The United States displaced some 250,000 Okinawans—many of them crammed into internment camps run by the U.S. military—to make way for military bases throughout the islands. During the Vietnam War, B-52 bombers headed to Southeast Asia from Okinawa, which by the 1960s had more than 80 military installations throughout the island, complete with hundreds of nuclear warheads unbeknownst to the Okinawan people. Although nuclear weapons were removed from the island under a bilateral agreement between Japan and the United States in 1971, a secret agreement was signed ensuring the United States the right to reintroduce nuclear weapons “in time of a great emergency.”

The island itself bears the scars of decades of U.S. military presence: Arsenic, depleted uranium and the notorious defoliant agent Orange have been found throughout the island. Chemical leaks from U.S. military facilities have also contaminated the island’s water supply, according to an investigation by journalist Jon Mitchell. Okinawans fighting against U.S. presence worry that the new base construction in Henoko will further the destruction of coral reefs and sea-grass ecosystems in Oura Bay. “The sea of Henoko is so full of life that our ancestors used to say there’s an endless stream of fish spouting from the ocean floor,” Fumoto Ryuuji, a 63-year-old Okinawan man I met at the sit-ins in July, told me. “For us, this island is life.”

Yet, despite decades of opposition by the Okinawan people, the Japanese government has funneled billions of dollars to support the construction of U.S. military bases on the island. For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a far-right conservative who dreams of reviving Japan’s militaristic glory days, the country’s status as a loyal partner is a happy medium: To play America’s henchman is to regain a share of the empire, however small. In addition to backing U.S. wars, the Abe administration is pushing to revise the country’s pacifist constitution, eager to recast Japan as an “equal partner” out on the battlefield. The crisis in North Korea could be the perfect excuse.

And the escalating tension between North Korea and the United States has stoked fear that Okinawa could once again find itself in the throes of war. “When we look at history, we know that military bases are targeted first in any war,” Makishi Yoshikazu, an Okinawan architect, told me in his one-room office, where he keeps thousands of pages of U.S. military plans. “If there’s conflict in Asia, Okinawa will no doubt become America’s first line of defense.”

But the Okinawan people have fought back at every turn. In June of 1956, Okinawans carried out a coordinated campaign against American occupiers, in what became known as the “island-wide struggle.” A decade later, many Okinawans fiercely opposed the Vietnam War through massive protests calling for the closure of all U.S. military bases on the island. “Our people have a rich history—a tradition—of resistance,” Yamauchi told me. “And we’re not only resisting, we’re actually winning.”

The ongoing demonstrations in Henoko have caused significant delays in the construction of the U.S. military base. In Takae, a village just 30 miles northeast of Henoko, anti-base protesters have continued to block the completion of six new U.S. military helipads—dubbed Ospreypads” by locals—delaying the construction due last year. To slow things further, the Okinawan governor filed suit against the Japanese government in July, demanding the return of ancestral lands. And in August, Okinawan anti-base activists traveled to California, where the resistance was met with knowing solidarity.

“A world without bases”

“Guahan has always been a target for bombing, occupation and devastation,” Josie Camacho, executive secretary-treasurer of Alameda Labor Council, told me outside the convention hall at the APALA convention in August. “It makes me angry that for these powers, especially for Trump, our island is expendable,” continued Camacho, whose parents are from Guam.

The island territory of Guahan has a history of double colonization by the United States and Japan. Since the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military has used the island to house a plethora of fighter jets and nuclear-powered submarines, and is pushing a multi-billion dollar plan to upgrade its air force and naval bases there. “It’s hard talking about the military, because they’ve been the sustainable piece of our economy for a lot of the Chamorro people,” says Camacho, who headed the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Caucus, attended by the Okinawan delegation alongside American workers of Chamorro heritage. “This is what the United States does.”

The APALA convention saw organizers unite under the goal of resisting Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant policies. But for many, their stories were also inextricably tied to U.S. policies of war and imperialism abroad. “There are people here who came to America after escaping the Vietnam War as refugees, whose families were killed by U.S. soldiers,” said Darren Shiroma, a fourth-generation Okinawan from Hawai’i who served as a union representative for AFA-CWA. “People fleeing war-torn countries understand the wrenching of their identities, of their family’s lands, of their ethnicities.”

The people of Okinawa, South Korea, the Philippines, Hawai’i and Guahan have built power in the outer reaches of empire, and the movement is finding solidarity within communities of color in the United States. “We need to build relationships and do something to mend the suffering of my ancestors,” says Shiroma, who grew up in Hawai’i with Japanese and Okinawan parents. His opposition to the U.S. military occupation of Okinawa stems from his family history, woven into the fabric of America. “As an American, I’m against our country’s occupation of native lands.”

In the “homeland,” the same occupying forces abroad seem to take the form of an increasingly militarized, racist police force that overrun America’s internal colonies. The U.S. government spends more on defense than the next eight countries combined, while slashing funds to education and polluting the water source for Black, Brown, immigrant and Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, the spoils of neoliberal capitalism fuel America’s military ventures abroad.

“Living in America, there were times I saw myself as less than human,” said Wesley Ueunten, a third-generation Okinawan and professor of Asian-American Studies at San Francisco State University, who was working as an interpreter for the Okinawan delegation at the conference. “What that experience has taught me, on a basic level, is not to lose my own humanity and not to deny others.’”

While a diplomatic solution to the crisis in North Korea is imperative, we can’t forget that it’s only a temporary solution. Perpetual “regime change” is part of the logic of empire. Decolonization is a prerequisite to lasting peace in the region and a vibrant, transnational movement could push the Asia Pacific towards a brighter future.

When the resolution calling for an end to the U.S. military expansion in Okinawa passed at the APALA convention, the Okinawan delegation stood up with their fists in the air and the crowd erupted in applause. In the face of turmoil, it’s these moments of solidarity that provide a road map for a radical, anti-imperialist movement. “I want to imagine a world together, a world without bases,” Miyagi Chie, an Okinawan activist and high school teacher, told me outside the convention hall. “Here, I get the feeling we’re going to change history.”

Lisa Torio is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan.

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