"Nuchi du takara" (life is precious). These words, spoken in 1879 by the king of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Sho Tai are central to the traditions of the peace movement in Okinawa. For hundreds of years, the group of pacific islands south of Japan was an independent kingdom, Ryukyu, a trading nation between Asian countries and a peaceful place. But in 1879, during a period of European colonisation in Asia, Japan annexed the Kingdom Ryuku and embarked upon a series of measures to erase local identity and make the islanders Japanese, including banning female tattoos and discouraging the use of the Okinawa languages. When the Japanese government banished the King of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Sho Thai from the island, some of his last words to his followers were "nuchi du takara", meaning, "life is more important than money or possessions. Once lost, it can never be recovered". The importance of these words -the irreplaceable nature of life- struck home for Okinawans during World War II and later.
The peace movement in Okinawa, the first port of call for the 90th Voyage, was one of the subjects discussed in depth during the first days onboard. Participants gained insights into the history and the current issues in Okinawa, thanks to Guest Educators Makishi Yoshikazu and Jon Mitchell. Makishi is a well-known architect born in Naha, Okinawa's capital city. Aside from his profession as an architect, he is also an activist for peace and nature conservation. Mitchell is an investigative journalist based in Japan and born in Wales. He writes about human rights issues in Okinawa and the ongoing impact of environmental contamination by the military on the islands. In May 2015, he was awarded Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan's inaugural Freedom of the Press Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on Okinawa.
In the Okinawa language, "yukushi" means "lies". In his lectures to participants onboard, Makishi spoke about some of the "yukushi" Okinawans are being told related to US military bases of which there are 32, 70% of all those in Japan, covering 20% of the land in Okinawa. "Following the rape of a young girl by US soldiers in 1995, the Japanese and US governments agreed to close the Futenma US military base on the condition of having an alternate facility located at Henoko. But for a long time, Tokyo and Washington had wanted to build a new megabase there", he explained to the participants. "The US has been waiting to build this base for almost 50 years. And now with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in power, they finally think their wish will come true", said Mitchell. But the overwhelming majority of Okinawans oppose the plan which includes millions of tons of concrete being dumped into the bay in order to build two runways and a deep-water port for the US Marine Corps. They have shown their opposition through every democratic means available. At every election in recent years, they have voted to elect people who oppose the plan.
Henoko plays a very special role in the hearts of Okinawans. According to local myth, Henoko is the head of a dragon which stretches from there to its tail in the south. During World War II, the US military set up evacuation camps in the areaand people were able to survive by foraging in the jungle and fishing in the waters of Oura Bay. Today, Henoko is one of the most bio diverse places in the planet. It is home to marine life found nowhere else in the world, including the endangered dugong, which has always been regarded as sacred for many Okinawans."Given the importance of Henoko for many locals, there is little wonder why so many people are doing everything they can to save the bay from destruction", explained Makishi, who has been supporting the demonstrations for years.
Their peaceful resistance is waged from both the sea and the land. Every morning, boats and canoes sail in to the bay to monitor and block Japanese government construction vessels that are beginning to prepare for building the new base. These demonstrators are men and women, from all generations, that share the same determination to prevent the new base from being built. "The reaction of the authorities has been ruthless. They drag away the demonstrators on land or at sea. They pull them from their boats. There have been broken bones and some of them have been hospitalised. There are nonviolent demonstrators, but the police treat them like terrorists", Mitchell explained.
Henoko has received media attention as locals have resisted the US military, but less well known is Takae village. In the northern jungles of Okinawa -called the Yanbaru- the US military has the largest Jungle Warfare Training Center in the world. During the Viet Nam War, they built a simulation of a Vietnamese village there. They hired Okinawans to act as Vietnamese people and the US military trained its soldiers to kill Asian people there and even it has been reported, but never admitted by the US military tested the notorious defoliant Agent Orange there before it was used with devastating results in Viet Nam. Today, the US military still trains its troops in the jungles of Takae there. "They don't care about people or the wildlife", says Mitchell who has written extensively about the use of Agent Orange on the island. For the past several years, the US military have been trying to build helicopter pads near Takae Village. Local people have been blocking this construction with a series of sit-ins. "Whenever the bulldozers arrived, the protesters meet them with cups of sanpin cha (Okinawan jasmine tea) and invite them to sit down and talk things through. The bureaucrats have no idea how to react to this kindness", explained Mitchell. For many years now, Takae's residents have successfully managed to stave off construction.
"For me, Okinawa's peace movement is one of the most powerful and inspirational movements in the world", Mitchell said. In one of his lectures he introduced to the participants two key figures in Okinawa: Ahagon Shoko and Shimabukuro Fumiko. Agahon -who died in 2002- is the father of the Okinawan civil rights movement. Inspired by Gandhi's principles of passive resistance to British rule in India, Ahagon drew up a list of policies for the farmers in their dealing with the military. These included the need to stay calm and retain faith in the inherent good of individual Americans. Shimabukuro is an 85-year-old woman still fighting today. According to Mitchell, "She used to work in a military base as a maid. She quit her job and now she is a figurehead of the peace movement: strong and outspoken, a survivor. She deserves a Nobel Peace Prize more than warmongers like Sato Eisaku or Barack Obama".
Today, the government of Prime Minister Abe insists it has a mandate to build the replacement facility and will push ahead despite the opposition. But the Okinawans are determined to resist peacefully. The violence comes always from the other side. Makishi is optimistic about the future. "I really think the Henoko base is impossible. We, the Okinawans, are very strong. We have the support of the majority of the population and our government", he added. Mitchell is also positive about the future: "Everyday the Okinawans have more support from mainland Japan and from overseas. There's no way the protesters can be defeated. They will overcome the situation. The Japanese government has already lost Okinawa", he concluded. Maybe Sho Tai and Ahagon Shoko are no longer standing with the people of Okinawa, but the spirit of their resistance is still very alive in the islands.