According to organizers and media sources, some 70,000 people took part in the rally at a park in Okinawa’s capital, Naha, on Saturday to protest government plans for the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
The residents of Okinawa have long argued that while, under the government plan, the US military base would be moved from the heavily-populated town of Ginowan to the remote coastal area of Henoko in Nago, it would still pose an environmental threat. They have long demanded that the US base be removed from the island altogether.
Tokyo is to start dumping soil into Henoko Bay within days to prepare for the new site, which will reportedly be bigger. Environmental groups say construction at the bay would damage corals and dugongs — an endangered marine mammal.
Enduring pouring rain and an approaching typhoon in the island’s capital, the protesters chanted slogans and held signs that read “Henoko new base, NO!” and “Okinawans will not give up.”
The demonstrators also held a moment of silence in commemoration of Okinawa’s late governor, Takeshi Onaga, who died of cancer on Wednesday in the midst of his anti-base campaign. Onaga, who was elected in 2014 on a platform that included ending the US presence on the island, was a leading opponent of the US base relocation and an active campaigner against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.
Okinawa, the site of a bloody World War II land battle, is already home to the majority of US military facilities and about half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan.
Tokyo believes the base is necessary. Since defeat in WWII, it has been heavily dependent on US military protection against perceived threats. Many ordinary citizens in Okinawa, however, regard the base as a burden.
Multiple cases of misconduct by US forces, including several rape cases and the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman in 2016, have increasingly raised anti-American sentiments among the pacifist islanders.