The Story Behind President Obama’s Trip to Japan


I am back in the U.S. after traveling to Ginowan in Okinawa to film the November 8th protest against the plan to relocate the Futenma Marine Air Base to the environmentally sensitive Oura Bay near Henoko. I returned just as President Obama landed in Tokyo to begin his first trip to Asia since becoming President. There, Obama appeared to make a concession to the DPJ government, agreeing to reopen talks on plans to relocate the base. But experts say those talks are likely to be confined only to details of implementation, and not include discussions of moving the Marines off Okinawa altogether, as so many Okinawans are demanding.

The rally I filmed at Ginowan, site of the Futenma Air Base, was as impressive in its scale as in the diversity in ages and backgrounds of those participating. At its height, more than 20,000 people assembled for the rally. It was scheduled for 2PM but by half past noon, hundreds were lined up at the gate to the amphitheater, despite the scorching sun. As soon as the gate opened, they streamed in, toddlers and grandmothers, students, fishermen, businessmen and activists, mostly dressed in sunshine casual.

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Many carried tall pennants high overhead, identifying their hometowns from all over Okinawa. Some came from as far away as northern Japan. The multitude of colorful flags fluttering in the breeze brought to mind the battle scenes from RAN, Kurosawa’s saga of battling samurai.

As the crowds began to pack the stadium, long before the rally’s official start time, two bands performed onstage. The second act closed with the haunting anthem, “Give us back Okinawa.” Its simple melody has lodged itself into my brain, perhaps because the defiant lyrics, “Give us back Okinawa, give us back Okinawa,” foreshadowed both the tone of the speeches and the reactions of those assembled.


During my stay in Okinawa,I realized just how little we Americans know of the anger that Okinawans feel about the U.S. military presence. Before I started making this film, I never realized that some 30 sprawling U.S. bases have covered more than 20% of the land area of this small island since the end of World War II.

As the rally began, mayors and members of parliament representing Okinawa spoke in open anger about the noise pollution caused by the  incessant training of F-16 fighter jets, C-130 transport planes and Chinook helicopters, directly over the homes and streets of local towns, disturbing their daily lives and even their sleep. They reminded those assembled of the interminable rapes, murders and petty crimes, committed by American soldiers over the decades, which have largely been exempt from prosecution under the Status of Forces Agreement. The were united in their indignation of how long their legitimate grievances have been ignored by mainland politicians. The unmistakable rage in the voices of the elected officials was echoed by irate cries from the audience. I had the distinct feeling that although the Okinawans have been protesting American bases for over 60 years, they believe their struggle has just begun, all over again.

Among those present was Shimabukuro Taeko, a great grandmother in her 80s, who remembers the firestorms which decimated her island during WWII. She is among those defiant Henoko residents who have staged sit-in protests for nearly a decade, preventing the relocation of Futenma to their emerald translucent waters. I had filmed her in May, on the Henoko beach, where she explained to me, how “if this all becomes an air base, I could never face my grandchildren or my ancestors.” When I saw her again, she smiled broadly, saying, “I want to meet Obama-san. Please tell him that we don’t need American bases on Okinawa. Please take them back to America.”


As we were filming the warm-up acts, I had received an urgent call from the second camera crew I had sent north to Henoko, site of the proposed new base. They told me that  an enormous battleship had suddenly appeared offshore and the locals were predicting that the vessel would soon disgorge Marines to train for an amphibious landing onto the beach outside Camp Schwab. The locals told my crew that although they were accustomed to the site of amphibious tanks churning up the sands of their beaches, this was the first time they could recall that Marines were conducting training exercises on a Sunday. Later, as I watched the footage of more than 100 Marines storming Henoko beach, I was stunned by how the presence of battle-ready soldiers, aiming machine guns as they charged the beach, transformed what I had experienced as a tropical oasis into such a menacing tableau.

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