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Regional News

Okinawa petition to save Henoko Bay reaches over 200,000 signatures

WITH Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s blessing, construction workers have begun dumping truckloads of sediment into Okinawa’s Henoko Bay, the second-most biodiverse coral reef in the world (the first being the Great Barrier Reef) and the designated site of the U.S. Navy’s next offshore base.

The majority of native Okinawans are opposed to the construction of the base; Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki said the landfill was “intolerable” and called it “an outrage by the state.”

This is a battle twenty-some-odd years in the making; Tamaki was elected in part due to his anti-Henoko-base platform, as was the late Gov. Takeshi Onaga before him. And Okinawan resentment toward the U.S. Navy’s presence on island stems back much further than that. Okinawa constitutes only .6 percent of all Japanese land, but with the consent of the Japanese central government, the island hosts over 70 percent of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

That presence has proven to be a substantial burden on the Okinawan people; U.S. servicemen have a disturbing history of committing crimes (including an infamous gang rape of an Okinawan 12-year-old girl in 1995), crashing Ospreys, and building training ranges that are not adequately contained.

There is perhaps no better indicator of the longevity of the issue than the age of some of the Okinawan protestors — this week in Henoko Bay, Japanese riot police began forcefully removing and arresting elderly Okinawan protestors who were attempting to block trucks full of dirt and rocks. One of their leaders is a 90-year-old woman.

But regardless of mass protests and gubernatorial elections, central Japan tends to turn a blind eye toward the island prefecture’s stance.

Rob Kajiwara

So activist Robert Kajiwara decided to petition the U.S. government instead.

“My request was to at least temporarily halt the construction until after Okinawa holds its referendum on February 24th, to allow people to vote and decide whether or not they want this base,” he told Variety.

“This is only the second time Okinawa has had a referendum,” he explained. “This is big.”

Since early December, the petition has accumulated just under 210,000 signatures.

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” he told Variety. “Of course, I’m thrilled with the coverage that we’ve gotten.”

Kajiwara is Okinawan and Hawaiian; he is sponsored by non-profit organizations on both islands as a cultural ambassador. From this unique position, he hopes to spread awareness of the Okinawan struggle throughout the American public.

“This is the first I’ve heard of Okinawa reaching out to the U.S. government, as opposed to reaching out to the Japanese government,” Kajiwara said.

His Whitehouse.gov petition reached 100,000 signatures within ten days, entitling its supporters to an official response from the U.S. government in the coming weeks. Kajiwara said that several thousand Americans — including Queen guitarist Dr. Brian May — signed the petition, though he was surprised to find that an even larger portion of the petition’s signatories were from continental Japan.

“I was expecting more Japanese to be hostile to this idea,” he said. “But on the contrary, we’ve just had so much support from the Japanese.”

“That number is especially great when you consider the fact that we have received no mainstream media coverage among the U.S. and we’ve also been heavily censored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.”

Kajiwara said that it was when his petition reached nearly 150,000 signatures that he and fellow supporters began to encounter censorship issues. He explained that political censorship is more common in Japan, and Japan-based advocates for the petition were finding that their tweets would mysteriously disappear. Some were banned from Twitter outright.

Because Kajiwara is based in Hawaii, he is free to criticize the Japanese government to his heart’s content. He even made a trip to Washington, D.C. on February 7th, where he and other protestors gathered to protest, meet with politicians, and celebrate the 30-day anniversary of the petition.

Kajiwara believes militarization and colonialism are pervasive issues for “strategically located” islands, and he hopes that his petition will be one of many calls for justice that reach across the Pacific.

“I’m really looking forward to Hawaii, Okinawa and the Mariana Islands working together more closely to help each other in our shared aspirations.”