NEWS & LETTERS, July-August 2005

Environmental Day solidarity

San Francisco--In preparation for the United Nations World Environment Day finale, a huge outdoor stage was set up at San Francisco Civic Center on June 4. Mayor Gavin Newsom summoned environmental experts and fellow mayors to the United Nations’ birthplace to exchange ideas on tackling problems in major urban areas, where most of the world’s energy is consumed and most of the pollution generated.

Hours before the main event a 200-strong rally, organized by people the mayor had not invited, took place off stage right. Representatives of predominantly Black Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood demanded that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Mayor Newsom take steps to close the toxin-belching Hunters Point power plant. After several residents attested to that region’s disproportionately high incidence of respiratory illness, a number of supporters took the mike.

Among the latter were two Berkeley-based groups that perform traditional Okinawan music. Members of Genyukai Berkeley play sanshin (3-string lute) and sing. Ryukyu Damashii does percussion and dancing. Since 2002 they have performed together in anti-war marches and at other events. Speaking for both groups drummer Miho Kim, a Korean woman from Japan, extended solidarity to the Hunters Point activists on behalf of Okinawans involved in their own struggle for environmental justice.

For more than a year women and men from the Henoko district of Nago City, Okinawa have been staging a sit-in on the preliminary structures of a new offshore U.S. Marine Corps base for Osprey helicopters. Kim, who visited Henoko in December 2004, recalled that most of the resisters were elderly. The calm, shallow waters of Henoko Bay allow for relatively easy construction. The bay also provides one of the few places suited to the endangered dugong (sea cow). The worldwide dugong population is about 100,000 but the Okinawa dugong number no more than 50 animals. A United Nations Environmental Program report refers to Henoko Bay as "the most important known remaining dugong habitat in Japan." Photographs taken by resisters show that wherever posts have been driven into the sea floor the coral reef is dead and no sea grass, the dugong’s only diet, can be seen.

Defending the dugong is part of a movement to shut down U.S. military bases in Okinawa that began in 1995 after a 12-year-old girl was gang-raped by three U.S. Marines. Okinawans have since become more expressive of their growing intolerance to the culture of violence promoted by both the United States and Japan. In a 1997 Nago City referendum 80% voted against the proposed air station over Henoko Bay. At today’s rally Wesley Ueunten, a Hawaiian of Okinawan descent and founder of Genyukai Berkeley, sang a ballad in the Okinawan language commemorating the Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest confrontation between Japanese and American forces on "Japanese soil" (Japan brutally annexed and colonized Okinawa in 1879). In the process of trying to decimate one another the two sides wiped out a quarter of the Okinawans.

That U.S. military personnel to this day consider the battle a successful campaign to liberate Okinawa is seen in their frequent reference to the incessant racket of warplanes as "the sound of freedom." Sunao Tobaru, who grew up in Okinawa and founded Ryukyu Damashii after he moved to Berkeley, said children are going deaf and babies have gone into seizure at the pulsating roar of attack helicopters. Tobaru and Ueunten estimate that the typical Okinawan has lost a year of education due to jarring interruptions from "the sound of freedom."

An ad hoc committee of San Francisco Bay Area Okinawans is working on a petition urging officials to abandon construction of the Henoko air base. It will be sent to Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and their Japanese counterparts in time for the base closure and realignment conference. A finalized version should be available for signing and transmission by late July at http://okinawa.peacefighters.org.

--David Mizuno’Oto

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