Protesters stage a sit-in last year to oppose the construction of a new helipad at an American military base in Okinawa.
The presence of American military personnel in Okinawa in the decades following World War II has faced strong opposition from local residents, who say the soldiers and their installations pose a threat to their health and safety.
For the last seven years, a small group of activists have struggled to keep the government at bay over plans to construct six helipads in support of American bases by staging sit-ins at construction sites.
The protests have been a part of broader opposition to the presence of American soldiers in Japan, the bulk of which are located in Okinawa and present a safety hazard to the densely populated areas of the prefecture surrounding American bases that neither country takes seriously enough, critics say.
Takae village sits in the subtropical jungle in Higashison, an area north of the main Okinawa island, with a population of 160. If government plans proceed, it will also be home to six helipads – two of which have already been built.
“Many people react to the problems with the base by saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ But what is important is how each person expresses his or her own position,” says Sr Ryoko Miyagi of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Sr. Miyagi has been participating at a sit-in since June 12.
The construction site is “such a large, mountainous area” that keeping an eye on the workers to learn where they are planning to build is a challenge, she says.
“I don’t know whether we can stop the construction, but it’s important for someone to be present 24 hours a day to keep watch,” she said.
Some 30km southwest of Takae, at Henoko, another helipad project site is also underway.
“By starting construction at both Takae and Henoko at the same time, the government has divided the efforts of the opposition. So I, as a Franciscan, look at standing with these most powerless people as the best thing I can do,” Sr Miyagi says.
But the protesters have now gained a committed group of allies.
Japan last month marked the 69th observance of Okinawa Memorial Day, known as Irei no Hi, or “day for the consolation of souls”, which commemorates the end of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. An estimated 200,000 Japanese and American troops and civilians died in the battle.
In the weeks that followed the anniversary, and in order to show solidarity with the people of Okinawa and their opposition to the continued presence of American forces, 76 communities of women religious in Japan announced the launch of a coordinated program of protest activities aimed at the proposed helipad sites which will run from July through May next year.
Part of the 10-month program will see the religious communities break up into four groups, each of which will take turns spending one Saturday a month in prayer and fasting to protest against the construction projects.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will additionally participate in a sit-in at one of the helipad construction sites. The communities in the rest of the nation will fax messages to the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart to convey their prayers and activities to those at the protest.
The solidarity program was decided during a meeting of the Association of Major Superiors of Women Religious in Japan, held in Osaka City from May 27–30, and is being called “The 3rd Sisters’ Relay” due to the ‘relay’ format of the communities’ activities.
Previous Sisters’ Relays focused on disaster relief efforts in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.
About 70 people were present at the recent association meeting, which focused on leadership in religious communities. The participants considered responses to four areas of immediate concern, namely Okinawa, nuclear power, Article 9 of the Constitution (which articulates Japan’s renunciation of war), and crises in Japanese families.
Sr Keiko Chiba of the Sisters of St Paul of Chartres, president of the Association, declared that the measures taken by this inter-community alliance come at the urging of the Holy Spirit.
“It is meaningful that we do not act in isolation, but instead each bring our own small power together with that of the others,” she said.
Sr Miyagi says the support from the Association comes at a crucial time and could well make a substantial impact.
“They have made ‘life’ and ‘solidarity with sufferers’ the theme of their activities. They are taking up the problems with the base and the government because lives are at stake.”