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In Their Fight to Stop a New US Military Base, Okinawans Confront Two Colonizers

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In one of Teiko Yonaha-Tursi’s earliest memories, she’s on a mission that gets interrupted. Walking barefoot through a lush green field in Itoman, Okinawa, Yonaha-Tursi—then just Teiko Yonaha—stops suddenly and starts jumping up and down. Her little legs have been taken over by fat red ants.

 “Okinawa is a very hot and humid island,” said Yonaha-Tursi, now a grandmother, retired social worker, reporter, and goodwill ambassador for Okinawa who lives in New Jersey. “So all these dead bodies became fertilizers.” Corpses decaying after the Battle of Okinawa offered extra nutrients, so the grasses were thriving, obscuring the ant colony that Yonaha-Tursi had trampled.

 She was out bone-spotting, part of a search group looking for salvageable remains from the three-month-long World War II battle that killed an estimated 100,000 Okinawan civilians—up to a third of the island’s population. “[The bodies] didn’t bother me,” Yonaha-Tursi said, “because we lived in the caves,” like many Okinawans who evacuated their homes to shelter in cramped subterranean quarters near the end of the war. Japan had concentrated its military forces in Okinawa in hopes that the United States would invade there, avoiding the mainland, and the plan worked. Although devastating, the battle was only one episode in the long history of the island’s abuse at the hands of two empires: Japan and the United States.

 The Battle of Okinawa ended in 1945, but the US military never left. After the war’s conclusion, the United States occupied Okinawa until Japan and the Allied Powers signed the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which gave the United States jurisdiction over Okinawa for another 20 years. In that time, the Pentagon established dozens of bases on the island, 32 of which are still operating. At just 877 square miles—about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island—Okinawa Prefecture accounts for just 0.6 percent of Japan’s land mass but contains more than 70 percent of the country’s US-occupied territory.

If it sounds like Okinawa probably can’t fit any more bases, that’s because it can’t. Nevertheless, a new one is going up in Henoko-Oura Bay near Nago, the town where Yonaha-Tursi was born. The construction won’t add to the already high number of bases, but rather replace one: The bay is the relocation site for the detested Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, currently located in populous Ginowan and the cause of distress to residents, who have lived with the roar of Futenma’s planes since the end of the war. Because Okinawa’s natural land mass is already so full of bases—they cover about 15 percent of the island—the Japanese government, in compliance with the US Defense Department, is extending the island’s eastern edge. In order to do it, they’re dumping landfill into Henoko-Oura Bay, where two coral reefs and thousands of aquatic species—nearly 300 of them endangered—currently live.

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