Photo/IllutrationHelicopters land and take off from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 29. (Motoki Nagasawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

GINOWAN, Okinawa Prefecture--Tatsumi Goya joined hundreds of Okinawans in a protest against U.S. military flights over local schools here Dec. 29 because he cannot bear to tell his children they are not safe when they are in class.

For Goya, 42, it was his first time to address such a public gathering. An estimated 600 people took part.

The spark for this latest rally was a Dec. 13 incident in which a window fell from a U.S. helicopter while it was flying over the playground of Futenma No. 2 Elementary School. Dozens of children were doing PE classes outside at the time.

It was the second incident in less than a week involving an object from a U.S. military aircraft. On Dec. 7, a cylindrical object from a U.S. helicopter was found on the roof of Midorigaoka nursery school building.

The protest, held in front of the Ginowan city government building, was organized by action committee consisting of the Okinawa prefectural high school parent-teacher associations and other organizations.

Participants called for a flight ban over both schools, which are located next to the sprawling U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Goya's two children were attending the elementary school when the second incident occurred.

In his speech, he angrily referred to the fact that the U.S. military had vowed to avoid the airspace over the schools as much as possible, but made clear he felt it was an empty promise.

“It is frustrating that I cannot tell my children that their school is not dangerous any more. Why can’t the central government be more vigorous in its protests against the U.S. military?”

Yukiko Chinen also addressed the crowd. Her eldest daughter was attending the nursery school when the object was found.

“I only want our children to be able to play in the playground without any anxiety,” said Chinen, 39.

The participants included not only labor union members and elderly people, but also young parents and their children.

One was a 39-year-old mother who took her two daughters to the rally after being invited by a friend through the Line messaging app.

“The U.S. military does not keep its promises," she said, adding that the accident is not a someone else’s problem as an object falling from a U.S. military aircraft could have hit any other school.

Another focus of the rally was the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

“People who don’t know the actual situation with regard to U.S. forces in Japan may think that if the air station is relocated, all our problems will be solved. But we all know the danger of the U.S. base, so we cannot say so easily that it should be relocated to Nago.”

WHY PUT A SCHOOL NEXT TO A BASE?

Futenma No. 2 Elementary School opened in 1969 when Okinawa was still under the jurisdiction of the United States. It opened in its current location next to the Futenma base because no other appropriate land was available.

According to a book on Ginowan's history, city authorities secured the land under the terms of a land readjustment project. In the 1960s, Futenma was a bit of a backwater and the frequency of flights was low.

“The closure (of the air station) is rumored,” a local newspaper reported at the time.

But in later years, helicopters and other aircraft were transferred to the air station from other bases in mainland Japan as well as Hawaii, according to “Ginowanshi to Kichi” (Ginowan city and base), published by the city government.

As noise and danger level increased, plans emerged around 1980 to relocate the elementary school. The cost of acquiring a new land plot was estimated to be 2.5 billion yen ($22.2 million) at the time.

However, the central government refused to provide subsidies for the relocation on grounds such a system did not exist.

The candidate site for the relocation was a parcel of land attached to the U.S. forces’ Camp Zukeran, now called Camp Foster. However, the U.S. forces attached a condition that the land where the Futenma school was standing had to be offered for use by U.S. forces.

Negotiations remained deadlocked for years, during which time the school buildings started to deteriorate.

In 1992, the PTA abandoned the relocation plan and requested that the school be rebuilt at its current site. The new buildings were completed in 1996.

“In the (aged) school buildings, concrete fragments fell from ceilings. Giving up the relocation was a painful choice for the guardians,” said Shigeo Yamauchi, 66, who worked in the city government’s planning division and the base policy division in those days.

In 2010, some media reports wrongly asserted that the school's relocation was dropped due to opposition from civic groups and that Japan and the United States had agreed on the relocation and secured budgetary means for the project.

Rumors spread online that some people opposed the relocation simply to spread the view that Futenma was dangerous.

The city government then received several protest calls, one of which said, “Don’t make children a hostage.”

In the Ginowan city assembly, Yamauchi, then the head of the base policy division, repeatedly explained the reasons the relocation was dropped. His explanations got media coverage, but rumors continued to sweep the Internet.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 13 incident involving the fallen window, the elementary school and the Ginowan city board of education found themselves targets of criticism. One caller said the school deserved to be criticized “because it is located in such a place.”

As Yamauchi has explained again and again: “The failure to relocate the school had nothing to do with any opposition movement. But many people still buy this groundless information. What should we do?”