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Closer to China than to the Japanese mainland, these idyllic islands confront the prospect of war

Stephanie Yang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

On a balmy February morning, two dozen protesters sat in front of the gates of a U.S. Marine Corps camp on the coastal area of Henoko in the center of the island, obstructing entry for a growing line of cement trucks.

They held signs calling for a halt to the construction of a relocated air station within the base and chanted against Japan's Ministry of Defense.

Despite their daily dedication to delaying work on the military facility, the average age of the protesters — about 70 — suggested a stagnating activist movement even as fears of conflict have grown.

"People who remember the war are gone. The movement is shrinking," said Hiroe Shimabukuro, a 47-year-old resident who participated in similar protests there when she was in her 20s.

Work and raising her young son have left her little time for political activism. But alarmed by what she sees as the nation's march toward war, in which Okinawa could be sacrificed once again, she started wearing yellow — clothes, ribbons — as a warning and a call for awareness.

"Many people are not aware of what is going on," she said. "Militarization happened too fast. People couldn't catch up."

While she promotes the fledgling movement on social media and at anti-war events, Shimabukuro feels the need to do more and wishes younger people would get more involved, she said.

Opinion polls show that Okinawans under 40, accustomed to U.S. bases, are less fervently opposed to them than their elders.

Kanato Shimoji, a 19-year-old majoring in psychology at Okinawa International University, said though he often sees criticism of the U.S. military in local media, he harbors little animosity.

"I think the very existence of the U.S. military bases is a deterrent that will keep Okinawa from going to war," Shimoji said. "I don't know what might happen if the bases were really gone."

Haru Goya, 23, said she worries about Okinawa's proximity to China and its isolation in the event of a military assault. Still, the concept of war feels foreign to her, even after learning about the Battle of Okinawa in school and hearing wartime tales from her grandmother.

"We see it differently from our grandmothers and grandfathers who experienced war," said Goya, who sells knitwear and accessories. "We have not experienced the dark side of history."

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In Ishigaki, there are fewer scars, less constant reminders of war, and most remain sanguine about the prospect of attack. But those who remember have been unnerved by the military's return to the small island.

Setsuko Yamasato, who grew up on the island, had lost half her family to the tumult of World War II by the time she was 8.

In 1944, her older brother was en route to serve in the military when his boat was sunk by a U.S. missile. The following year, her infant sister died of starvation while they sheltered in the wilderness from air raids, and her mother and grandfather succumbed to malaria.

Now 87, Yamasato spends Sunday evenings protesting in front of the Japanese military camp and other spots across the island, holding signs and waving and shouting to passing, honking motorists. She is sure that the growing presence of Japanese troops is more likely to bring conflict than to protect from it.

"Through our experience in the war, the military forces didn't save the island people," she said.

Only a handful of elderly locals ever join Yamasato in her weekly protests, and she sees their efforts as a prayer for peace more than anything else.

If war does reach Ishigaki's shores again, Yamasato has no plans to leave.

"This is where I was born and raised, not by my parents or grandparents, but by this entire island," she said. "If I have to be baptized by fire, that would be my destiny."


Special correspondent Makiko Segawa contributed to this report.


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