Civil Resistance to Militarization: A Glimpse of Okinawa’s Nonviolent, Courageous and Tenacious Struggle for a Democratic Security Policy

By Betty A. Reardon, Institute on Peace Education.

Resilient Resistance

The early October rain was steady, punctuated by downpours that leaked through the canvas sheltering about 100 Okinawan citizens, seated in resistance to the construction of a military heliport at Henoko. Many had been there at a gate to Camp Schwab (one of the 33 US bases in the prefecture) for hours as we approached in late morning. I was among a small delegation of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence (OWAAM), with whom I have been in solidarity since the late 1990s. Under the leadership of Suzuyo Takazato, founder of OWAAM and a former member of the Naha City Assembly, the prefectural capital, these women have been among the most active in the resistance. They regularly join delegations to the US to inform American citizens and appeal to Congress members, government agencies and NGOs for help in demilitarizing Okinawa.

Our delegation joined the gathering listening to a series of resisters, some of them daily participants in this protest for over ten years of civil resistance to the extension of the US militarization of Japan, a constant oppressive presence for the seven decades since the bloody battle of Okinawa that ended World War II. In short animated talks, some referring to the long-term stationing of US military, a series of speakers made the case against the construction that would exponentially increase the negative effects of the military bases that cover about 20% percent of this, the main island of the former independent Kingdom of the Ryukyus. The islands seized by Japan in 1879 are now a prefecture of the mainland Japanese government. Although Okinawa has an independently elected governor, its own prefectural assembly, and has one representative in the national Diet, it continues to be managed as a colony.

While all the speakers agreed on the need to restore control of the land occupied by the bases to the prefecture, they brought different perspectives and represented the variety of people gathered under the canvas who were of all ages, occupations and from many parts of the island. They were participants in a long-term, nonviolent citizens’ resistance to the military presence that first manifested itself as a major movement in 1995 when tens of thousands participated in a citizens’ rally in Ginowan city. This rally was a denunciation of the most recent sexual assault committed by US military personnel, the rape of a 12 year old school girl by three servicemen. It also brought attention to the range of crimes and other socially and environmentally damaging effects of the bases, debasing the quality of their lives and undermining their human security (a partial accounting of the first five decades of these crimes which continue to the present is chronicled in “List of Main Crimes Committed and Incidents Concerning the U.S. Military on Okinawa,” 1948-1995). Yoshitami Ohshiro, a long-time member of the City Assembly of Nago, in noting the further negative effects that would result from the presence of the soon to be constructed dual runway landing strip, spoke of an independent study of the potential environmental impacts of the planned airbase being conducted by an environmental scientist at the University of the Ryukyus, a study that will be of use not only to the indigenous resistance, but also to those American and international peace and environmental activists who support their struggle.


Eighty-six-year-old Fumiko Shimabukuro devotes herself to resisting a police officer forcibly removing her from the front of Camp Schwab’s gate on the morning of October 29 in Henoko, Nago City (Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo)

As one such activist, I was invited to address the group, expressing through interpretation by Dr. Kozue Akibayashi of Doshisha Unversity in Kyoto, my admiration for their courage and tenacity. Indeed, some resisters present were among those who had risked life and limb, in small rubber rafts that were paddled out into the bay to turn back the early stages of the strategic surveys to identify specific locations for the sea-based construction. Their courage was to be tested again in less than two weeks from the day of this visit when local police and Japanese military forcefully put down their human chain. This human chain was attempting to block the construction equipment and personnel the mainland government had dispatched to commence the construction as reported the Rykyu Shimpo.

One of those roughly displaced was a fellow octogenarian, Fumiko Shimabukuro, a staunch resister, present daily at the protest site. She and I conversed with the help of Dr. Akibayashi. She told me that her participation in this struggle to prevent the construction of the airbase, and all the years of protesting the presence of the US military bases derived from a basic commitment to the larger cause of the abolition of war. She recounted the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa endured by the civilian population and her own soul-searing experience as a young teen-ager, caught in the mayhem and trauma of the US invasion, memories kept sharply alive by the continuous wide-spread presence of the military throughout her island home. Her struggle will end only with the withdrawal of the bases or with the end of her life.

Military Assault on the Natural Environment

From the sit-in at the Camp Schwab gate we went on to another resistance site at the shore from which the runways will extend into Oura Bay. Hiroshi Ashitomi, Co-chair of the Conference Opposing Heliport Construction and leader in charge of the water front construction site resistance camp, informed us of some of the already known environmental consequences of this off shore militarization; among them threats to aquatic wild life that is witnessed on his business card with a tiny drawing of a sea turtle and a dugong (this mammal is much the same as the manatee, native to the Caribbean and Tampa Bay). One particularly destructive expected environmental consequence is the breaking down of the coral reefs that have served since their original formation as a barrier, mitigating the force of major storms and tsunamis.

Mr. Ashitomi also brought reports of these effects in one of the periodic visits to the US Congress by delegations of members of the resistance who believe that if the actual consequences of long-term military presence are known to the American people and their representatives, the situation is more likely to change. It was this same belief that inspired the first of such delegations organized by Okinawa Women Against Military Violence, in the Peace Caravan to various American cities in 1996. Suzuyo Takazato with some of that delegation visited Teachers College Columbia University – where I was then offering peace education. She outlined for us the realities of the Okinawa situation with regard to the environmental destruction and the sexual violence against women that has been perpetrated by US military personnel since the time of the Battle of Okinawa to the present (a chronology of these sexual assaults is available on request). This particular form of military violence against women is generally overlooked in addressing aspects of war and conflict that incite crimes of violence against women (VAW). The Okinawa situation calls attention to the relevance of VAW in strategic staging areas and under long term military presence to one of the three major goals of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security, protection of women against the gender based violence integral to war. The facts documented in the OWAAM chronology demonstrate that this protection is needed in areas of preparation for combat as well as in the midst of armed conflict. Feminists see a significant connection between violence against the environment and the gender based violence that motivates the activism of OWAAM and feminist peace movements elsewhere also striving to reduce and eliminate military bases in their own respective regions, to overcome this and other forms of suffering common to host communities around the world. 

Forced Militarization of Okinawa Contradicts American Democratic Values

This report is written in support of base reduction and withdrawal and in solidarity with the courageous people of Okinawa in their non-violent resistance to the militarization that reduces their security and detracts from the quality of their daily lives. Indeed, all of us are affected to some degree by the global network of US bases, and many feel called to resist, urging public consideration of alternative less violent security systems. For Americans a significant mode of resistance to militarism in all its forms and in all its locations, might well be standing in support of the calls for the recognition of the rights of the Okinawan people to participate in making the decisions that affect their daily lives and the sustainability of the natural environment of their islands. We might also strive with them for liberation from the colonial status to which they have been consigned by the governments of Japan and the United States. So that readers so inclined might be more fully informed of the situation several references and links to sources of information not available in our media are noted here.

The conditions that prevail in Okinawa as a consequence of the long-term military presence while particular to that island, are not unique. Similar situations are to be found in approximately 1000 communities throughout the world that host the myriad military bases maintained by the United States (information on Wikipedia not entirely accurate, but presents a good view of the extent and density of US military bases world-wide). The implication of this global network of long-term presence of the American military for peace educators and peace activists are also myriad, both general and particular.

Implications for Peace Education

The Okinawa experience provides an educationally fruitful case for learning some of the vivid particularities of local civil society actions as a realm in which to exercise global citizenship. Similar actions are undertaken in other locations of long-term US military presence. Study of the international anti-base movement could illuminate the destructive consequences of the current militarized global security system to the well-being of host communities, undermining the human security of local populations. Further, and more important to the normative and ethical dimensions of peace education, these civil society actions are vivid examples of the refusal of base communities to accept the powerlessness that security policy makers assume when they make the decisions that ignore the will and welfare of the citizens most affected. Becoming aware of the courageous confrontation of the most powerful nation state in the world and its allied states by citizens who exercise local civic responsibility, universal human dignity and democratic political rights can provide learners with knowledge that resistance to militarization is possible. Though it may not immediately achieve its goals, such resistance can, no matter how slowly, reduce some negative conditions and processes, perhaps paving the way toward an alternative to the militarized security system, certainly empowering the citizen participants. As in the case of the recent prefectural elections in Okinawa that resoundingly rejected the bases, it can have some meaningful if limited, some times temporary political effect. It demonstrated that few among the Okinawan electorate continue to believe that the limited economic advantages outweigh the current and cumulative human, social and environmental disadvantages of hosting the bases. So too, it manifest the claims of the citizens to their right to participate in the security policy- making process that so profoundly affects them. When such manifestations continue over time and in other areas, even in the face of governments’ intransigence, they are testimony to the tenacity in which lies the hope of positive change in the current security system. Such intransigence was evident in the passage of “The New Security Law.” This step toward PM Abe’s goal of remilitarizing the country, ultimately abrogating Article 9 of the Japanese constitution which renounced war, brought thousands into the streets, demonstrating against the law and calling for the preservation of Article 9. The struggle to maintain the integrity of the Japanese constitution continues to engage large numbers of peace-minded Japanese citizens, many of whom participate in the Global Article 9 Campaign to Abolish War.

Taking stock of such resistance and its consequences could also serve as a route to a broader and deeper study of proposals and possibilities for alternative, demilitarized security systems and citizens’ efforts to bring them to the attention of the public and security policy makers. Study of the Okinawa situation, along with conditions in other base host communities within a critical assessment of the present militarized security system is an essential foundation for assessing proposed alternatives. Inquiry into the arguments and actions of the international anti-base movement could provide a basis for the study of constructive citizen initiatives, national, bi-national, transnational and local civic action which goes beyond and complements civil resistance, a whole range of nonviolent strategies for the reduction of militarism and the ultimate transformation from conflict based militarized state security to justice based human security. These strategies, rooted in and facilitated by relevant peace education, hold the potential to change concepts of and ways of thinking about national security. Considering multiple alternative security systems, shifting from a focus on the security of the state to one on the enhancement of the well-being of the peoples of a nation, emphasizing a holistic and comprehensive approach to security would enable peace education to prepare citizens to conceptualize and do the political work of disarming and demilitarizing the international system.

Inquiry into alternative security systems is an effective learning tool to introduce holistic perspectives and comprehensive approaches to security such as those offered by a human rather than a state-centered perspective. Convergence of three relevant fields of education: environmental, human rights and peace education – connections long part of a feminist analysis of the problems of war and armed violence – is essential in these days of seeking to understand the probable causes and responses to the climate crisis, the increase in terrorism, steps toward disarmament and demilitarization, freeing the pursuit of human rights from the vice of national security states, and the urgency of gender equality to all and any issues of peace and security. Certainly, the gendered effects of the presence of military bases makes UN Security Council Resolution 1325 a fundamental component of peace education specifically directed toward learnings to capacitate citizens to bring their governments to serious action toward the demilitarization of security.

The GCPE plans to publish teaching procedures for undertaking such learning in university and secondary school classrooms. Suggestions for learning units for adaptation to the teaching circumstances of individual educators will be offered. Some peace educators hope to promote such inquiry together with the dissemination of knowledge of the effects of US bases and raising awareness of the courageous, tenacious and inspiring resistance and civil actions of the people of Okinawa and other base host communities throughout the world. The issues are relevant to peace education in all nations, as all are involved and/or affected by world-wide militarization. In particular they are crucial knowledge for all US citizens in whose names the global network of American military bases has been established and continues to be expanded as recently reported. “…. the Pentagon has proposed a new plan to the White House to build up a string of military bases in Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East” (The New York Times, December 10 – Pentagon Seeks to Knit Foreign Bases Into ISIS-Foiling Network) as a strategy to counter the growth of adherents to ISIS. Will it be possible for the peace community to proposes and call to public attention alternatives to ever expanding militarization as the major approach to holding back and overcoming the exponential increase of these and all threats to national and global security? The author and colleagues in the Global Campaign for Peace Education intend to provide means to acquire and apply some of the knowledge relevant to responsible civil action in response to this challenge.

For further information on the impacts of Military Bases in Okinawa see:

About the author: Betty A. Reardon is a world-renowned leader in the fields of peace education and human rights; her pioneering work has laid the foundation for a new cross-disciplinary integration of peace education and international human rights from a gender-conscious, global perspective.

One Response

  1. Thank you for this, Ms. Reardon, and for your continuing efforts to educate the public on this problem. My son has lived in Tokyo for 27 years; he is married to a Japanese woman, and they have a three-year-old son. I fear for them when I see this abomination inflicted on the citizenry of a now peaceful country. Incidentally, I am old enough to remember World War II and the demonizing of the Japanese “enemy.” The routine vilification of certain populations continues today, of course. That is necessary in order to condition the ever-compliant American public to acquiesce to the horrors we inflict on the world.

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