Opinion: Berkeley City Council balks on opposing Okinawa military base. Why?

Before the vote, officials from the Japanese Consulate General’s office visited some City Council members to persuade them that opposing the base would let North Korea dominate the region.

Berkeley City Council’s Jan. 22nd consent agenda contained two items recommended by the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, part of its longstanding tradition of registering symbolic stances on matters of international concern.

One item voiced opposition to the war in Iran and another opposed the new U.S. base construction in Henoko, Okinawa. I was dismayed to witness Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Council members Susan Wengraf, Lori Droste, Rashi Kesarwani, and Sophie Hahn register their abstentions to the Henoko resolution, sealing its failure without any explanation. Only Councilman Ben Bartlett spoke out in favor, linking the resolution to that night’s vote on a city-sanctioned homeless camp: “If we’re going to talk about taking a stand against Trump and against homelessness and against poverty, the destruction of community around the world, the first step is to oppose the expansion of yet another military base,” he said.

Over 20 years ago, the controversial Futenma Air Station situated in the center of populous Ginowan City, Okinawa, was finally slated for closure and return – but only if a “replacement facility” was built in Henoko’s Oura Bay. Despite decades of staunch local resistance to this plan, the new construction is fully supported by the Japanese and U.S. national governments.

Tons of sand and dirt have been dumped in the bay since December 2018, but only a small fraction of landfill work is complete. The project faces tripled cost overruns, and completion estimates stretch well past the original timeline as the seabed has proven too soft to support the planned airfield. Not only undemocratic, this project is simply impractical. Henoko is like Trump’s border wall – a costly and damaging geopolitical vanity project.

The construction is destroying the habitat for the critically endangered Okinawa dugong. On Feb. 3, Danny Thiemann from the Center for Biological Diversity delivered oral arguments at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, showing how the Department of Defense failed to take the dugong’s protected status into account in its environmental impact review. Supporters from the Turtle Island Restoration Network held a rally outside the courthouse, where City Councilman Takuma Higashionna from Nago, Okinawa, and several local community members spoke.

The situation in Okinawa has been referred to as a kind of “double colonization” – Okinawa was originally an independent kingdom, forcibly annexed by Japan in the late 1800s (much like Hawaii and the U.S.). Japan treated Okinawa as a sacrifice zone during WWII – site of the bloodiest, longest, land battle in the Pacific – and ceded to U.S. occupation from the end of the war until 1972. The U.S. military retains nearly the same footprint it had during the occupation.

Okinawans are in a difficult position – every elected Okinawan representative to the national Japanese government and the governor have voiced their opposition to the construction, but the Abe administration remains unmoved. For this reason, local U.S. resolutions lend crucial support to people in Okinawa. Activists there are heartened to know that despite our national government’s intransigence on this issue, U.S. citizens and residents support their ongoing efforts to end the construction. And this is precisely why the Japanese government personally pressured Berkeley City Council members against voting.

I spoke with Kesarwani, who confirmed that some council members accepted visits from the Japanese Consulate General’s office ahead of the vote. The consulate general discouraged them from supporting the resolution by raising the specter of military threats from North Korea and China. Berkeley City Council members should know better than to fold to this intimidation. I encourage them to take up this resolution again and sincerely hope that more Americans will raise their voices against this needless construction.

Emma Tome is an Okinawan-American Ph.D. student in the energy and resources group at UC Berkeley and former high school teacher in Okinawa,