For 20 years, the people of Okinawa, Japan have opposed the construction of a US military base that will damage the marine environment and endangered sea creatures like the Japanese dugong. Now the construction threatens to take over their forest. Japanese photojournalist, Takashi Morizumi has been documenting the Okinawa people’s movement for nine years. Read his journey and meet the people who are fighting to keep their home.
Children swimming in the lake in the Yambaru forest
Driving north along the highway towards Higashi village, Okinawa I’m immediately struck by the lush, green Yamburu Forest. Home to over 4,000 species of plants and animals, including protected endemic and endangered species like the Okinawa woodpecker, Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle, and Ishikawa’s frog, it makes sense that this “Galapagos of the East” is currently in the process of being registered as a world natural heritage site.
As sunlight strikes through the canopy hitting my windscreen I feel spiritually healed in the forest mists and wonder: what right does a helipad construction have to take away the nature and desire of the residents who are peacefully living here?
Sunlight streaming through the Yambaru forest
This is what the Japanese government has decided to do – cut down the forest in order to construct six helicopter pads for the United States military, including on sites in the district of Takae in Higashi village. With 140 residents in Takae, they have twice adopted a resolution opposing the construction, but the government has forcefully began construction anyway. To live in peace, residents of Takae have no other choice than to protest at the gates where construction vehicles enter. This is what their lives are like.
Mr Gentatsu Ashimine – cafe owner
Mr Gentatsu Ashimine
Gentatsu Ashimine opened his own café to offer a place of spirituality and calm for city-dwellers. In 2003 he moved from central Okinawa to Takae, looking for a sustainable life. The cafe – constructed without blueprints, and built using his own tools – is situated on the brook in front of his house so that the bubbling stream and bird and insect songs can be heard. It’s paradise.
However, in 2014 two of the helipads were built 400 meters from his place. Thunderous military aircrafts now hover overhead, shattering the peace and tranquility. When night-time military training began, his children could not go to school due to lack of sleep. He was forced to evacuate them to a neighboring village.
“Because of the helipads, we cannot live here. But we didn’t do anything wrong. We don’t want to run away from here,” said Gentatsu.
Military aircrafts now hover over Takae.
Ms Akino Miyagi - entomologist
Ms Akino Miyagi
In 2007, Akino Miyagi saw an insect exhibition, which changed her life forever. She went to Malaysia to study insects and is now a leading expert on butterflies in Yambaru forest. Takae is where the Riukiuana Rings and other endemic butterflies live.
“If the Japanese government continue to cut down the trees, rare butterflies will become extinct,” Miyagi warns. “It takes only a moment to destroy the forest for the construction of helipads. However, these trees have been nurturing innumerable animals for hundreds of years. Human beings cannot nurture these living creatures.”
Japan’s elderly – activists
Takae’s elderly join hands against the riot police
Jostling and shoving, elderly people join hands against the riot police. Many experienced the battle of Okinawa 71 years ago, when a fourth of all Okinawans died.
“We don’t want our youth to experience hell. In order not to fight in a war, we fight now,” I overhear from a group of elderly activists.
Okinawan resistance is committed to non-violence.
Mr. Masatsugu Isa – craftsman
Mr Masatsugu Isa
Masatsugu Isa carves Tohtohmeh, a tablet to enshrine ancestors’ spirits. Over 20 years have passed since he and his father moved from Okinawa City to Takae. The Northern Training Area is across the street from his workshop. Now he helps represent the residents opposing the helipad construction.
“If we allow this, we will not be able to raise our voices against the atrocious behavior of our government,” says Mr Isa.
Residents who staged a sit-in protest in front of a training area gate in 2007 were sued by the government for “traffic interference”. He brought his fight to the Supreme Court, but lost. However, he will not desist. The blood of his father and grandfather, who also opposed the war and subsequent occupation, flows in his veins.
Takashi Morizumi is a photojournalist who covers topics in Japan and overseas such as the effects of U.S. military bases, radiation contamination, and environmental problems.
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