Photo/IllutrationThis Naha woman now shows more interest in videos of cats than what is going on at the protests at the Henoko land reclamation site. (Minako Yoshimoto)

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

If it is the central government's intention to wear down local opposition to a contentious U.S. military base project in Okinawa Prefecture by ignoring the displays of protest, the ploy seems to be working.

Dec. 14 will mark a year since land reclamation work started at coastal Henoko in Nago to build a V-shaped airstrip and related facilities to replace functions now undertaken by the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the Okinawan city of Ginowan.

The past year has been marked by daily protests against the construction work as well as a key gubernatorial election and referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Okinawans voted against the project.

In spite of all this, the government has paid no heed to local sentiment and plowed ahead with land reclamation that is mired in problems and which activists say will have a disastrous impact on the environment.

"I no longer have the fortitude to continue," said a 39-year-old female company employee in Naha who often used to join a sit-in outside the front entrance to the construction site.

The woman said she has all but given up her efforts to join those opposed to the Henoko relocation. Now she spends most of her time viewing videos of cats on her smartphone. She ignores posts on social networking websites sent by friends about the protests at Henoko.

The woman first joined a protest at Henoko in March 2015 after she heard rumors that sit-down demonstrators were paid a daily allowance. She wanted to confirm the veracity of the rumor and learned that no money was being handed out.

She was impressed that elderly Okinawan residents as well as young people from outside the prefecture were attending the daily sit-ins.

As an Okinawan native, she felt she had to do something. She often took the bus or drove to Henoko to take part in protests.

When she attended functions to meet a possible marriage partner, she invariably asked the men their thoughts on the Henoko issue.

When a gubernatorial election was held in September last year after the sudden death of Takeshi Onaga, the woman helped the campaign of Denny Tamaki, who picked up the banner opposing the Henoko relocation from Onaga.

Tamaki soundly defeated the ruling party candidate backed by the Abe administration, prompting the woman to feel that the cusp of change was in the air.

Ten weeks later, the central government began dumping dirt and sand into the waters off Henoko as the first stage of construction got under way.

The prefectural referendum held in February simply asked voters if they were for or against the base issue. About 70 percent of voters cast ballots opposed to the move. The government continued with landfill work the very next day.

In April and July elections to choose Diet members, candidates opposed to the Henoko move won, but nothing changed.

Feeling impotent, the woman stopped attending the protests. While she has not totally abandoned the cause, she has a heavy heart when she thinks about what she can do.

"I have become fatigued about thinking about how to stop the construction," she said.

Chiemi Iha, 44, runs her own business in Ginowan. During the 13 years she has lived near the Futenma base, she often observed U.S. military helicopters flying to and from the base while she hung up laundry.

"I want them to leave Futenma right now," Iha said. "But I still think it is wrong to reclaim land at Henoko for that purpose."

She had new concerns two years ago after parts of a helicopter that fell in mid flight were discovered in the grounds of a nearby day-care center and the window of another one landed in the grounds of an elementary school.

While her own two children attend a different elementary school, Iha wasted no time joining a movement by local residents to stop U.S. military aircraft from flying over day-care centers or schools.

She also attended a protest meeting after the mayor of Ginowan vowed that his city would play no part in the referendum. In the end, it did and the vote reflected sentiment across the southernmost prefecture.

"I felt the strength of the voices raised by the people," Iha said.

Among Ginowan voters, 67 percent cast ballots opposed to the Henoko move.

Iha became convinced that even Ginowan residents did not approve of the relocation to Henoko.

With the land reclamation work receiving wide media coverage, Iha's 86-year-old mother, who witnessed the carnage in Okinawa during World War II, said, "It looks like Okinawa will again be abandoned."

Iha feels that not only the waters of Henoko but also democracy are being buried by the dirt and sand being dumped into local waters.

"The government is trying to get residents to give up, but I will never do so because I want to leave behind an Okinawa at peace," she said.

A fisherman in his 40s who operates in waters near Henoko believes there is no stopping the relocation project.

He started out snorkeling for octopus and sea urchins, but three years ago had to turn to line fishing further off the coast.

But the waters where he used to gather octopus and sea urchins are now subject to landfill work.

"I feel like a part of my body is being destroyed," he said.

The man said he is neither in favor or opposed to the move because the relocation project feels like a done deal.

Yet, he cannot help thinking that the day will come when people regret the fact that the land reclamation was allowed to go ahead.

(This article was written by Kazuyuki Ito, Takahiro Takenouchi and Shohei Okada.)