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From the Deep Forests and Seas of Yambaru

Against the U.S. military presence in Japan.

Shun Medoruma (b. 1960) is a contemporary Okinawan writer whose work has won the highest accolades in Japanese literature, including the Akutagawa Prize in 1997 for his short story “A Drop of Water.” His novel In the Woods of Memory was translated into English by Kasumi Sminkey in 2017 and, like much of his work, deals with the afterlives of the Battle of Okinawa, in which 150 thousand Okinawans lost their lives. As an Okinawan born after the war, he is deeply interested in historical memory, intergenerational trauma, and the effects of violence on the collective psyche. Despite his success as a literary writer, since 2009 he has effectively ceased writing fiction and turned all of his time and attention toward protesting the presence of the American military in Okinawa. The essays translated here were selected from a collection published in Japanese in 2020, which gathers over a decade of his nonfiction writings on the movement against U.S. military bases in Okinawa. Together, they call attention to the daily texture of resistance—not the singular, heroic events of individual people, but the day-to-day persistence of dedicated activists who continue to resist the destruction of their land. Of note is the attention Medoruma pays to the scale of the environmental damage caused by the American military bases, and the way that this damage also contributes to the erasure of Okinawan culture—its folklore, mythology, and storytelling—all of which share deep ties with the natural world.

—Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda

I. The Sea of Henoko, Midsummer

Last summer I was in the Takae forest, in the northern part of Okinawa, protesting the construction of a helipad there. This summer, I canoed in Henoko Bay to protest against the U.S. Marine Corps’ construction of a new military base.

When I am out in my canoe, I am exposed to UV rays all day long, as there is nothing to block the sun out on the water. Most of us try to minimize our sun exposure as much as possible. Sunglasses are also a must, since looking directly at the surface of the water can cause permanent eye damage.

We go out in groups of ten boats, leaving around eight in the morning and returning at four in the afternoon. We usually paddle ashore to take a lunch break, but sometimes we just eat on our canoes. If you go out in two three-hour shifts—morning and afternoon—that’s six hours in the canoe. If you go out every other day, that’s ninety hours a month, 1,080 hours a year. While very dedicated activists do more, one thousand hours a year is probably about average. 

And we don’t just paddle either. We climb floats, scale oil fences, flee Japanese Coast Guard rafts. We weave through rocky stretches of shoal, cut through the rough waves of Oura Bay, whose waters can reach depths of up to sixty meters. Do all that for three years straight and your canoeing skills improve. 

But that doesn’t mean we get arrogant or let our guard down. We prioritize safety above all else because accidents on the ocean are a matter of life and death. We always travel in pairs or groups and have a system in place so that we can come to each other’s aid at a moment’s notice. We always have boats accompany us out on the water, so that we can be rescued should anything happen.

It is dangerous to act emotionally at sea. Good intentions only get you so far.

Some say we’re risking our lives in doing this work. They probably reach this conclusion after seeing images of us in the news clinging to the sides of floats and vessels, being harassed by the Japanese Coast Guard. But I don’t think the phrase “risking one’s life” is appropriate in this context. A sense of tragic heroism accompanies the concept, which is at odds with the purpose of our movement. Taking a risk that caused a serious accident would spell the end of our ability to protest at all. It is dangerous to act emotionally at sea. Good intentions only get you so far. Ultimately, it’s the alignment of strength, skill, and experience that makes our movement possible.

Stamina is necessary not only to paddle long distances but also to withstand long hours in the sun. Even when you’re just paddling in place, several hours of sitting in the same position beneath the sun’s blazing heat quickly does a number on your body. One of the scariest things that can happen out on the water is heatstroke, so we are vigilant about staying hydrated.

We usually end around 4 p.m., then wash and put away our canoes and other tools. I head home around 6 p.m. Then I shower, do my laundry, followed by some light strength training. I organize the photos and videos I took that day and write in my blog, and by that time it’s often close to midnight. I browse the internet for a while and go to sleep around 1 or 2 a.m. The next morning I wake up at 6 a.m.

Since I can’t sleep on the canoe, I sometimes have to pull over while I’m driving home to take a nap. I have almost no time to read books, let alone write on this schedule, so I have to take advantage of days when the weather is bad or take days off from canoeing to do my writing. The time that is given to us is limited, and I’ve often thought to myself that I should stop protesting, or at least significantly cut down on the amount of time I spend protesting, to focus on writing my novels. But I could never bring myself to do it.

Right now, the construction in Henoko is focused on the eastern coast of Camp Schwab. There, on the seafloor of the shallows, seaweed that feeds the Dugongs grows in thick abundance.

Before the base construction began in July of 2014, you could see the bite marks left by the Dugongs on the seaweed. Once the barges and protest boats and coast guard boats moved in, however, the Dugongs stopped coming around. According to a survey conducted by the Okinawan Defense Bureau, there are now only three Dugongs left in the world, where they once inhabited the entire region of Okinawa, from Miyako to the Yaeyama Islands. Of those three, one has not been seen for the past two years.

In Nakijin, where I grew up, there is an island called Kouri. An old legend about the Dugong is associated with the place. It is said that a long time ago, a man and a woman lived together on Kouri island, naked. They filled their stomachs with mochi that fell from the sky. Anxious about what might happen if the mochi were to stop falling, they began to stash it away. At which point, the mochi really did stop falling. They were left with no choice but to try and secure food another way. One day, they went out to the shore and saw Dugongs—which are called Zan in Nakijin—that were mating. That’s when they understood what intercourse was. The man and woman had a child, and that’s how human society came to be.

These are the kinds of stories that the children of Nakijin grew up hearing. At one time, there were probably Dugongs eating seaweed off the coast of every island of Okinawa. It’s easy to imagine that the legends of the Kouri islands originated from people watching the Dugongs like this.

As part of the new Henoko base construction, sand now fills the places where this seaweed used to grow. In addition to being the main source of food for Dugongs and sea turtles, it also serves as the habitat and breeding grounds for various fish and shellfish. On the deeper side of Oura Bay, the complex terrain of the sea floor allows for great biodiversity. Some researchers identify this area as the most important ocean bed in Okinawa. That is what is being filled in with sand and destroyed to build a military base with a projected service life of two hundred years. 

What is being deployed at the new military base is the MV22 Osprey, which will be used by the U.S. Marine Corps. Yesterday, on December 13, an Osprey from the Futenma military base crashed near a beach in Nago near Oura Bay. The Japanese government and major media outlets used the curious phrase “emergency water landing,” but a cursory glance at the crash site would suggest otherwise. I got in my canoe and paddled out to examine the remains of the aircraft and observe the American military’s retrieval efforts. 

Just this past year, on August 5, an Osprey from the Futenma base crashed off the coast of Australia during a military training exercise, leaving three people dead. Twenty-four Ospreys are stationed at Futenma base at all times. Of those, two have crashed within a span of eight months.

Whenever it is announced that these Ospreys will undergo even short-term training near mainland Japan, the Yamatous[1] are outraged. Even the government puts on a big act, pretending like it will reconsider the idea. But these Ospreys fly above residential areas in Okinawa all year—and that is considered entirely normal. Under the pretense of “relocating” the Futenma base, the government is actually greenlighting the construction of another base in Henoko. 

While the Japanese population goes on and on about the threat of China and North Korea, at least half of them reject the idea of having the U.S. military’s presence in their own backyard, which is why it is shunted to Okinawa. And while they may appear contrite about it, they in fact want Okinawa to be sacrificed for the sake of Japan.

The summer light brings out the vividness of the color of the sea in Henoko Bay. It is difficult to see this ocean destroyed in such proximity day after day. 

—Fall 2017

American amphibious assault vehicles in Oura Bay, Japan. | U.S. Pacific Fleet

II. From the Beautiful Sea of Henoko, from the Land Where We Fight for Our Lives

Day after day, on land and at sea, fierce protests rage against the construction of a new military base in Henoko, in the city of Nago. There are demonstrations, chanting, rallies. People sit in front of the gate at Camp Schwab to block service cars with raw materials. They row out in canoes and boats to disrupt the spud barges conducting seabed-boring surveys. On most days, we are forcibly removed by the Okinawan riot police or a special boarding unit of the Japanese Coast Guard.

But we are undeterred. Again and again, we take aim at the service cars and spud barges. This is not a PR campaign or peaceful protest. Our aim is to actually stop the construction of the base.

As the clashes grow more violent, people are injured, many taken away in ambulances. Dozens are arrested for blocking the gate, though they are usually released soon after. The scale of these arrests is new in my three decades of participating in Okinawan mass movements. Ever since an MV22 Osprey was stationed at the Futenma Marine Corps base three years ago, protests have reached a new level of intensity.

The beginnings of the Henoko military base problem can be traced back to September 4, 1995, when three American soldiers raped an Okinawan girl.[2] In December of the following year, spurred on by the anger and revolt of that moment, the Japanese and American governments publicized the final announcement of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa.[3] Then in December of 1997, there was a referendum on the U.S. military’s offshore base construction, with the opposition in a clear majority. However, Higa Tetsuya, then-mayor of Nago, discarded the referendum. Since then, opposition to the base has increased.

The intensity and scale of the Henoko anti-base movement has only increased over the past twenty years.

Most social movements wane over time, and the Japanese government likely expected as much of this one. Yet the intensity and scale of the Henoko anti-base movement has only increased over the past twenty years. At this point it has spread to all of Okinawa. Even some conservatives—who had initially been in favor of the base—are involved. The fierceness of the protests now taking place in front of Camp Schwab are unmatched, even by the anti-base movement that immediately followed the Japanese reversion.[4]

In spare moments during the protests, people gather to sing, dance, and perform kachaashi.[5] A peaceful feeling pervades the space. If you only saw these moments, you might conclude that the protests are unserious. But celebration is what sustains us. If you strain yourself protesting around the clock, neither your mind nor your spirit will hold up.

These days, I am in my canoe as part of the sea protests. The military is surveying the seabed in Oura Bay, where the ocean is more than sixty meters deep. Unlike in the reefs, the waves are rough, so high at times that I can’t see the canoe next to me. That and the Japanese Coast Guard keep us on high alert at all times.

It was only when I rowed a canoe for the first time that I truly took in the richness of Henoko and Oura Bay—all the value left in Okinawa. On sunny days, the area of land around the cape of Henoko, soon slated for reclamation, glitters a cobalt blue. Even the Yamatou Coast Guard personnel acknowledge the beauty of Okinawa’s transparent ocean. But if things continue the way they’re going, it will soon be destroyed.

Even though it’s been seventy years since the Battle of Okinawa, an ever-expanding U.S. military base remains in Okinawa, and the Self-Defense Forces continue to claim that they’ve never killed anyone.[6] They won’t admit that the wars that the American military has waged on North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq were only possible because of the military bases we’ve offered them. Thus they, too, are implicated in these wars.

However much we may appeal to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, if we don’t oppose the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty it means that we who live in Yamatou are only protecting our own “peace and security.”[7] We cannot turn away from the responsibility we bear for all the harm that Okinawa and the U.S. military have caused around the world.

—May 2015

Over a thousand gather to protest the construction of a U.S. military base in Henoko in 2013. | RyuFilms

III. U.S. Military Base Destroys the Natural Beauty of Yambaru Forest

On March 28, in the town of Takae in Okinawa, the U.S. Marine Corps conducted military training in the forest near the main gate of Camp Gonsalves. An MV22 Osprey hovered overhead, its propellers spinning as soldiers were lowered to the ground one by one on suspended ropes. Standing on a nearby highway, I watched from a distance of some eight hundred meters. Even there, the roar of the motors was deafening. Hot air from the engines blew down onto the trees, swaying them back and forth.

One section of the forest, designated as a “special natural monument,” is home to a number of rare and endangered species unique to Okinawa, including the Okinawan woodpecker, the Yambaru water rail bird, the Ryukyu long-haired rat, and the Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle. Because the sound of heavy machinery harms the Okinawan woodpecker’s mating activities, construction is not allowed from March to June. But in this period, during their Osprey training, the U.S. military detonates explosions that are louder than heavy machinery.

On January 31, the Japanese government announced its intention to apply for the inclusion of the Amami-Ryukyu Islands on UNESCO’s provisional list of candidates to become a World Heritage Site. While many in Okinawa welcomed this, some argued that the presence of Camp Gonsalves would prevent the region from ever being added to the UNESCO list. A region must have strict environmental protections in place for it to become a world natural heritage site. Yet due to extraterritoriality, the U.S. military base prevents this.

At the prefectural level, Okinawa doesn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight. In fact, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima approves of the helipad construction in Takae. His stance is that, for the sake of the reversion of the northern half of Camp Gonsalves, we must allow the U.S. military to construct six new helipads. This ignores the fact that helipad construction will lead to more military drills and exercises in the area. At the end of the day, when the U.S. military talks about “reversion” of the northern half of Camp Gonsalves, it can only mean one thing: that they will move all training facilities to the southern half, occupying the land on a semi-permanent basis. It’s not just Camp Gonsalves, either. Under the pretense of “relocating” the Futenma military base, plans for the construction of a landfill at Camp Schwab at the Henoko base in Nago are also being pushed through. Looking through the wire fence from Highway 129, the inside of Camp Schwab looks very different from how it did a few years ago.

The months of March through June are the mating season of the Okinawan woodpecker, but they were also the bloodiest part of the Battle of Okinawa, which took place sixty-eight years ago. As I think back on this battle from time to time, I also have to grapple with the legacies of April 28 [1952] and May 15 [1972]. We were sacrificed in the Battle of Okinawa[8], thrown to the wolves on April 28[9], and since May 15[10], the deployment of U.S. military and Japanese Self-Defense Forces has only intensified. Even after sixty-eight years, Okinawa is still living under the military base and the threat of war. 

—April 2013



[1] Okinawan term for Japanese people.

[2] On September 4, 1995, three U.S. servicemen kidnapped and raped a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl named Masami Yoshinaga. The incident ignited a surge of anti-American sentiment among Okinawans as well as Japanese people across the country.

[3] The Special Action Committee on Okinawa was a formal agreement made between the United States and Japan in November 1995, the purpose of which was to reduce the impact of the U.S. military presence on Okinawans, in part by consolidating and reducing the amount of land used by the American military. The rape of Masami Yoshinaga provided a major impetus for the agreement.

[4] Whereas Okinawa fell under U.S. jurisdiction in the decades after World War II, the 1971 Okinawan Reversion Agreement returned Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty.

[5] A type of Okinawan folk dance.

[6] The Japan Self-Defense Forces are the unified de facto military forces of Japan established in 1954. Under Article 9 of its postwar constitution, Japan was prohibited from having a standing military after its defeat in World War II; however, later Japanese cabinets interpreted this provision as not denying the nation the inherent right to self-defense, and with the encouragement of the United States, developed the JSDF. Medoruma alludes here to the fact that national self-defense is simply a cover for the true purpose of the JSDF, which is to provide military support for the United States.

[7] Article 9 is a clause in the national constitution of Japan permanently outlawing war as a means to settle international disputes. It states that Japan forever renounces the sovereign right of belligerency and that armed forces with war potential will not be maintained in Japan. The constitution was imposed by the occupying United States in the post-World War II period. In recent decades, a conservative movement which aims to repeal Article 9 has been gaining popular support.

[8] The Battle of Okinawa was a major battle of World War II fought on the island of Okinawa by American forces against the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). It lasted for eighty-two days, from April 1 until June 22, 1945, and was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. Okinawans constituted the largest number of casualties, with some estimating that half the population of Okinawa (at the time) died in this battle alone. Medoruma’s assertion that Okinawans were “sacrificed” in this battle alludes to the fact that the planned ground invasion of mainland Japan, which was the U.S. military’s next step after this battle, never occurred as a result of the overwhelming number of casualties.

[9] The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco re-established peaceful relations between Japan and the Allied Powers on behalf of the United Nations by ending the legal state of war and providing for redress for hostile actions up to and including World War II. This included placing Okinawa under control of the U.S. government. It came into force on April 28, 1952.

[10] While the San Francisco Peace Treaty signed in 1951 brought Okinawa under temporary U.S. government administration, Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, based on the Okinawa Reversion Agreement signed on May 19, 1971. For many Okinawans, this reversion of their territory to Japan was not in fact cause for celebration, as a large portion of their land continues to be occupied by American military bases.