This latest addition to the archive was originally published nine years ago and the sad fact is that it’s even more relevant today than it was then. The proposed US military base at Henoko remains contentious but matters have become even worse now for the Okinawan people who are at best ignored by America and treated as an inferior colonial outpost by Japan.
Despite Okinawa’s refusal to accept the new base, and fierce opposition, demonstrations and protests by local people, the Japanese government has recently allowed offshore construction work to begin at Henoko with the dumping of a large number of concrete blocks into the ocean.
Musicians in Okinawa are leading a protest movement against a US military base. John Potter reports.
Okinawa is rightly known as an island of music, songs and dance, but also has unwanted notoriety as an outpost for the US military. Last year musicians got together to protest US plans to close the Futenma airbase on the island’s city of Ginowan and relocate it to a new site further north in the small town of Henoko. Apart from the noise and danger to residents, this will inevitably damage the environment in and around this area of great natural beauty.
A combined DVD and CD package Live at Henoko Beach in Okinawa has just been released by Japanese roots-rock band Soul Flower Union and their alter ego, the acoustic Mononoke Summit. The Peace Music Festa of February 2007 was not the first of its kind but was the largest to date, attracting musicians from near and far, and among its organisers was Soul Flower’s Hideko Itami who now lives on the island in Ginowan. Further events are planned in the future, not just in Okinawa but as far afield as Tokyo.
Among those who gathered for the Henoko Peace Music Festa were Henoko’s own Misako Oshiro, now in her 70s and possibly the greatest living singer of Okinawan minyo (folk song), plus another veteran singer and sanshin player, Masao Teruya. Also present was the flamboyant Yukito Ara, from the Yaeyama island of Ishigaki further south, one of the greatest exponents of the island’s ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin. But it was not only the traditional Okinawan musicians who took to the stage. In both mainland Japan and Okinawa there is a strong following for hip-hop and reggae and among those appearing were the island’s own duo U-Dou & Platy. Their blend of these styles has made them enormously popular and their most recent album Buss Up combines hip-hop and reggae with a very Okinawan sensibility. Their song ‘Uchinanchu in Tokyo’ defines Okinawans as foreigners within Japan and is sung in the local language, while ‘Haisai Ojisan’ updates Shoukichi Kina’s classic song with humour and contemporary references. Duty Free Shopp from Okinawa were another hip-hop act of substance, while from mainland Japan there was Nanjaman, a politically-charged rapper from Osaka.
In WW2 an estimated 240,000 people were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. Despite reversion to Japan in 1972, the American occupation of the once independent Ryukyu Islands continues to this day, with the full support of the Japanese government. Approximately 20% of the main island of Okinawa is still occupied by US military bases, and about 75% of the American forces stationed in Japan are based here. This occupation has been characterised by appropriation of the islanders’ land and environmental problems, as well as military accidents and a long list of crimes committed by the American forces against Okinawan people, including theft, rape and murder. The islands, meanwhile, have been promoted by Japan’s government as a tourist destination or tropical paradise resort for the Japanese. This in turn has led to its own problems as a large number of building works projects have not helped the islands’ environment, while coral reefs and wildlife, such as the dugong which resides off the coast of Henoko, have been endangered.
The US base issue continues to be extremely topical after two alleged rapes this year by American servicemen on the island – in the first of these the victim was a 14-year-old Okinawan girl. This was a chilling reminder of the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl which took place in 1995 and led to massive anti-base protests throughout the island.
Hideko Itami’s husband is well-known to readers of these pages as the Irish musician and producer Donal Lunny. He has discovered at first hand the problems of living on an island fortress and in addition to taking part in last year’s Peace Festa, where his bouzouki joined forces with Japanese saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu, he recently wrote a letter to the Commander of the US Forces on Okinawa calling on them to abandon plans to build the new base at Henoko, and demanding the closure of all other military facilities and the return of the land to its rightful owners.
In part of the letter, reproduced in the Soul Flower DVD he writes: “I have found the people of Okinawa to be civilised, honourable and kind – even though I am often assumed to be American – and I believe that it is this very tolerance and good nature that has accommodated the intransigent attitude of the US authorities for so long – despite the fact that most Okinawans undoubtedly abhor the fact that their country is being used to train American soldiers for active service (which usually involves killing people) in other countries. The numerous protest demonstrations by Okinawans have achieved no change whatsoever.”
Lunny’s collaboration with Kazutoki Umezu has led to their combining with a third member, Hiromi Kondo of the trio Amana, on a four track mini-album entitled Dreaming Dugongs of Henoko which is being released on Hideko Itami’s label Zo-San. Some proceeds from the CD will go towards the campaign to fight the proposed base at Henoko.
While Okinawa is still stuck between the governments of Japan and the USA there is nevertheless optimism that this beautiful island will one day be returned to its own people.
Soul Flower website (in Japanese): www.breast.co.jp/soulflower/
Live at Henoko Beach in Okinawa is also available at www.farsidemusic.com
(fRoots Magazine No.300, June 2008)