Indigenous community haunted by U.S., Canadian military presence in Japan

Click to play video: 'Japanese Indigenous community decries U.S. and Canadian military presence on Okinawa Island'
Japanese Indigenous community decries U.S. and Canadian military presence on Okinawa Island
WATCH: Japanese Indigenous community decries U.S. and Canadian military presence on Okinawa Island – Nov 26, 2023

The presence of U.S. military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa, regularly used by Canadian Armed Forces members, is coming under criticism from locals who are Indigenous to those lands.

“It’s clear our message is dialogue is the most important,” anti-war activist Chobin Zukeran told Global News.

The island is important to the U.S. as it serves as a strategic hub for its military operations in the Pacific, especially as China’s presence expands and the North Korean nuclear missile threat grows in the region.

The location of Okinawa, about an hour’s flight east of Taiwan, also makes it critical to any U.S. military response if China were to attack Taiwan.

However, American bases occupy around eight per cent of the prefecture and nearly 15 per cent of the main island, causing indignation among locals like Zukeran, a former mayor of the city of Nanjō, and a past member of the Japanese House of Representatives.

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He is calling on the Canadian and U.S. militaries to have a conversation about their concerns.

“Before WWII in 1945, there were no military bases in Okinawa so I would like to see Okinawa without military bases; how would that be?”

Click to play video: 'Japanese protest against US military presence on Okinawa'
Japanese protest against US military presence on Okinawa

Zukeran spoke with Global News from Peace Memorial Park, where he says the names of his relatives, including his grandfather, are listed. The park honours the lives of those who died in the Battle of Okinawa, including nearly 150,000 Okinawans, about a third of the island’s Indigenous population.

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It was the last major battle of the Second World War and one of the bloodiest, fought between U.S. allied troops, including from Canada, and Japanese forces.

“The people didn’t have to die and they died in vain,” Zukeran said.

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Zukeran says what complicates the fight to reduce military presence on the island is that Japan doesn’t officially recognize Indigenous Ryukuyans.

“We don’t have any recognition from the government so that makes it really hard for us to talk about our human rights,” said Shinako Oyakawa, an activist who identifies as Indigenous Okinawan.

The central government in Japan argues Ryukuyans are Japanese citizens, not Indigenous peoples. Okyakawa says there’s little justification for that claim. She believes there’s strong strategic motivation as Japan’s recognition of Indigenous Okinawan rights could put the country’s national security at risk.

“Some people say the presence of U.S. or any kinds of military bases in Okinawa is protecting Okinawa but we don’t think so. The presence of military bases in our island makes us a target,” Okinawa International University economics professor Masaki Tomochi said.

While onboard a Canadian Armed Forces mission which departed from the U.S.-run Okinawa military base, Global News asked Naval Capt. Robert Watt about the issues raised by Indigenous Okinawans.

“It’s certainly not something we have a position on. Like in a lot of issues, there’s multiple sides to that. The U.S. is also a major employer, a very significant employer in Okinawa,” Watt said on the Oct. 16 flight as part of Operation NEON to enforce United Nations Sanctions against North Korea.

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“We work very, very closely with the Americans and the Japanese, the Japanese self-defence force […] They’re extremely aware of the sensitivities and this is something that comes up a lot.”
Click to play video: 'U.S. military aircraft crashes into sea near Japan, killing at least 1'
U.S. military aircraft crashes into sea near Japan, killing at least 1

Maj.-Gen. Iaian Huddleston pointed to the broader Japanese perception of the U.S. military being positive.

“Particularly given the rise of China in the area and the fact that Japan feels threatened. The acts of North Korea are also quite significant in that regard in terms of giving the Japanese pause and reason to be somewhat concerned,” Huddleston said.

Huddleston said he doesn’t believe Canada has a direct role to play in any discussions about the issue but there is room for supporting any U.S. engagement with Indigenous Okinawans. He also highlighted the military’s reconciliation efforts in Canada.

“I think the Canadian Armed Forces is very focused in some very positive ways on creating more and stronger links with our Indigenous people. Just recently, we helped repatriate a totem pole from Scotland to the B.C. coast,” he said.

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Tomochi believes Canada needs to be part of a dialogue about the impact of the bases on locals. He points to chemical contamination, noise pollution and crimes committed by U.S. servicemen.

“We want our peaceful island back,” Tomochi said, adding, “I want Canada not to invade our rights.”

As Canada and other countries commit to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People around the world, Zukeran says Japan needs to rethink both its national security and how it recognizes its national history.

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