Japan Correspondent

U.S. Marines with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, conduct a close-quarters target practice at night at Camp Schwab, Okinawa on June 4, 2020.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jackson Dukes

TOYKO — Expansion of the U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Schwab in Okinawa has hit another stumbling block that is likely to further delay the project, with a petition demanding a halt to the excavation of millions of cubic meters of soil for reclamation work on the grounds that it contains the remains of men, women and children killed in the fighting for the islands in 1945 attracting more than 50,000 signatures.

Work to expand the base, including the construction of two runways on reclaimed land in Oura Bay, has been making slow progress due to opposition from local people and the prefectural government.

When completed, the expanded facility will be home to Marine Corps units from Futenma Air Station, in the central part of the prefecture, with the realignment of forces also seeing thousands of troops and their dependents transfer to Guam. Other troops stationed at Futenma will be relocated to South Korea and northern Australia, although the latest hurdle threatens to interfere with the already much-delayed moves. 

Takamatsu Gushiken, the 67-year-old head of the historical group, Gamafuya, meaning “cave-diggers,” went on a four-day hunger strike outside the offices of the prefectural government in Naha in early March to protest the excavation of soil from battlefields around the island to be used in the reclamation work.

“It’s wrong to use soil that is mixed with the remains of the war dead for landfill,” Gushiken told the Mainichi newspaper. “The national government has been saying that it will ‘stand by Okinawa,’ but it is trying to do the exact opposite.

“I do not feel that they are showing any respect for the dead,” he said.

Gushiken, who founded Gamafuya nearly 40 years ago out of concern that not enough was being done to recover the bodies of combatants and civilian victims alike, has emphasized that the remains of U.S. soldiers will inevitably be mixed in with the soil.

Three months of fighting for Okinawa led to the deaths of 12,520 U.S. service personnel, along with 110,000 Japanese soldiers who fought fanatically to defend their homeland. Another 140,000 civilians died in bombardments or were killed by Japanese troops who feared they would reveal their positions to the Americans. According to officials overseeing the painstaking but slow campaign to recover the dead, the remains of nearly 190,000 have been found to date.

Another citizens’ group announced in February the discovery of the remains of eight people in a cave, including two children. The bones were found in a natural limestone cave close to the city of Itoman that had been turned into a bunker, along with military boots and uniform buttons.

Gushiken and other activists are demanding that Japan’s Ministry of Defense put a halt to the excavation of soil, saying in a statement that the government’s plans will “destroy the dignity of war victims.”

He said he had been forced to go public with the campaign and then staged his hunger strike after ministry officials ignored his request to halt the work.  “I asked them if they realized that they were going to use soil containing human bones, but they did not respond,” he said. “If they do go ahead with digging work, knowing what is in that soil, then it will be an act of betrayal of the people who died.”

The areas that have been identified as the source of soil for the base are in the south of the prefecture, close to where the Japanese defenders staged their last stand. Before the areas were cordoned off, volunteers said even a cursory examination of the sites showed indications of bones and human teeth.

“It does not matter if you are for or against the Henoko base, this is a humanitarian issue,” Gushiken said. “Soil from the scene of a bloody battle is going to be dumped in a beautiful bay and it needs to stop.”

If the government refuses to halt the work, activists and the local government may return to the courts to try to force the issue. Under a law passed in 2016, the national government is responsible for collecting the remains of military personnel and civilians who died during the war.

There have been similar challenges to the Camp Schwab project, including by environmental groups who claim that the construction work will ruin the pristine waters of the bay and destroy the feeding grounds of the critically endangered dugong. None of those legal moves have been successful in halting the plan entirely, although they have significantly delayed the work. mbj