Report From DSA Delegation to Japan: ZENKO, Okinawa, US Militarism

DSA members participated at the end of July on a week-long delegation to Japan to meet anti-war organizers in Okinawa and present at the ZENKO National Assembly in Yokosuka.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2023

DSA members join a protest outside Camp Schwab with ZENKO and Okinawa activists opposing construction of the new US military base at Henoko (courtesy Seth Dalton)

From July 25th to the 30th, I participated at ZENKO’s invite on a DSA delegation to Okinawa and Yokosuka to meet anti-war activists and speak at their National Assembly as a DSA representative. Since 2017, the DSA International Committee has worked with ZENKO, a left-wing anti-war organization in Japan, to support local organizers opposing the construction of a new US military base in Okinawa. The trip underscored the crucial historical moment and reinforced the urgency for opposing the escalating US drive for a new Cold War against China, which impacts the whole region through rising militarism and exacerbating conflict.

The first half of the delegation consisted of two days of fieldwork in Okinawa to meet and build solidarity with local political leaders, anti-war organizers, and native Ryukyuans on the front lines. I traveled with Seishi Hinada from ZENKO and Seth Dalton, another IC member in Tokyo, to overview several US military bases and hear directly about the issues locals have protested about for decades. On the second half of the trip we spent three days in Yokosuka, a city an hour south of Tokyo hosting the main US Navy base in Japan, and surveyed the local military presence and participated in the two day ZENKO National Assembly.

OKINAWA: US Military Bases

Okinawa is known internationally for its anti-base militancy, driven by the burden the US military has exerted on the island since the decades after WWII. Over 70% of US military presence in Japan is concentrated in Okinawa, which makes up less than 1% of land in Japan. Over 15% of the land in Okinawa is occupied by military bases, and the deep encroachment this poses on locals was striking as we drove by mile after mile of military bases through cities and countryside.

On the first day a press conference was held at the Okinawa Prefecture Hall in Naha City with news outlets, organizers, and local councilmembers, to discuss the work DSA has done on the ZENKO Henoko Anti-Base Project (ZHAP) and our commitment to opposing militarism. Afterwards we met the lieutenant governor of Okinawa and exchanged thoughts on the issues of the bases and the crucial need to advocate for peace in the Asia-Pacific. Okinawa is unique having both large local opposition (72% opposed construction of the new base in a 2019 prefectural referendum) as well as a local government and governor who oppose the US bases and are calling for diplomacy and peace with China instead of more militarism in the region.

Later that day we traveled to an observatory overlooking US Futenma Air Base in Ginowan City, which was slated by the US to close decades ago, yet continues endangering the daily lives of city residents. Immediately it becomes clear the absurdity of this US base right in the middle of a large busy city, with war planes and Ospreys flying overhead (picture Central Park in NYC as a foreign military airfield). We talked with Jinshiro Motoyama, one of the main organizers of the referendum which had to get 100,000 signatures to be introduced, and he explained the belief among locals that a new US military base is unacceptable. Another group of activists discussed the issues of PFAS chemical contamination from the base, as well as ear splitting noise and the history of dangerous incidents from the base, including a 2004 helicopter crash on a school.

In the evening we visited the office of organizers from Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, who just returned from leading a protest outside Camp Schwab at the new US base construction. Suzuyo Takazato, co-chair of the organization and a former Naha city councilmember, detailed to us their extensive archival research documenting 7 decades of sexual violence from US military bases against women, and discussed the long history of resistance and women led opposition against the bases. Later that night we met with one of the PFAS experts who is involved in researching the extent of chemical contamination impacting surrounding cities, the environment, and water supplies.

On our second day we visited the organizer’s encampment outside Camp Schwab near Nago City, where they’ve protested with daily sit-ins and demonstrations against the new US base construction at the Henoko-Oura Bay for over 3300 consecutive days (nine years), while at another location near the beach for over 7000 days (two decades). We spoke with protesters and delivered a solidarity message from DSA and exchanged gifts with the lead organizers, who explained how local groups take turns being in charge of the protests each day.

Recently the sizable encampment came under new threat from military authorities to be removed after all these years, but the organizers are refusing to budge and calling it a bluff. We then joined a demonstration outside the base gate to stop construction trucks from entering the site, a ritual protest the local activists have been doing every day for the past years to delay construction. It was inspiring to see even as it started pouring outside that people were unwavering and committed to being out there.

Afterward we got an overview of the beach construction from Masanori Okuma, one of the main Okinawa based ZENKO members running the Okinawa Drone Project to aerial map the US bases. He detailed the hazards of the new construction and extent of environmental damage to the surrounding Mission Blue designated Hope Spot bay habitat harboring endangered dugongs and hundreds of rare species. We then visited the organizers HQ for a visual presentation mapping out the various bases across Okinawa, and were explained how a newly passed law could soon make it illegal to protest in the vicinity of the bases.

As we drove toward US Kadena Air Base, the largest US air base in the Asia-Pacific, we happened to pass by another US base, and it struck me how widespread the encroachment on people’s daily lives really is. Throughout Okinawa, military bases occupy large swaths of prime flat land which has impacted the ability of industry to develop and has led to overcrowded cities and difficult building conditions on the steeper hill sides.

At Kadena Air Base we met a local councilmember who discussed the issues the surrounding five towns around the base face due to deafening noise from fighter jets and war planes flying off regularly and tests being conducted at night. For years residents have repeatedly sued the Japanese government for damages from the intense noise and health issues related to it, and while they’ve even won lawsuits the issue continues unaddressed.

Currently over 35,000 residents of Kadena town, the closest to the air strip, are suing again to demand an end to the overnight test flights and restitution for the noise damages they continue dealing with. During the hour we were at the observatory across the street from the base we saw 10 planes land and take off, mostly fighter jets causing intense 100dB+ noise at takeoff, and I was again struck by the severity of how disruptful the US military presence is for locals.

As we drove to the airport to catch our flight back to Tokyo, I felt incredibly inspired by the people I had met over the past days and more determined than ever that DSA must work to end this undue burden the US continues to exert on the people of Okinawa.

YOKOSUKA: ZENKO National Assembly

Once back in Yokosuka, we spent the next day at the US Navy base with local anti-war activists who organized a boat tour of the bay to see the military installations at the base. We sailed around for an up close overview of the many Japanese and US warships in the city dock, while a US military patrol boat closely tailed us, and were explained about the opposition among city residents to the large military presence. This would be the fifth and final US base we saw during the 6 day trip, still only a small part of the full scope of US military presence.

Later that day we gathered at the city center hall for a meeting with ZENKO organizers and several international guests who had also toured the US Navy base. I spoke about our trip in Okinawa and the many US bases we visited and organizers we met, and discussed the prospects for furthering this work and building international solidarity. We heard from the local organizers in Yokosuka about how they’ve organized against rising US and Japanese militarism, and the guests from Korea spoke about their own work in Jeju against US militarism now being escalated by the right-wing government of president Yoon.

The last two days consisted of the ZENKO National Assembly itself, an annual convention open to the public to showcase organizing work done across Japan, build international solidarity, get new people involved, and pass policies and resolutions to guide their work over the next year. I met Hinada-san at the train station where ZENKO activists were staging a public traditional Okinawan dance performance to promote the assembly. We then made our way to the city center hall and the large main theater room where over 500 people from Yokosuka and across Japan had gathered.

After keynote speeches and introductions from the president of the Social Democratic Party (the main progressive party in Okinawa), as well as a local Communist Party prefectural politician, we saw presentations from labor union organizers fighting against unfair labor practices, heard from several newly elected councilmembers with the Movement for Democratic Socialism (MDS) a ZENKO affiliated socialist political organization functioning similar to DSA as a quasi-party, as well as presentations from organizing work youth members have been doing, among others.

During the international section, one of the activists from Okinawa first spoke about our visit and how the organizing efforts against the new base at Henoko are progressing. Afterwards I gave a presentation on the work DSA members have done in the International Committee with ZENKO over the past years, and overviewed our political education work and coordination with electeds to build public political opposition for the first time.

This included getting 40 state and local DSA electeds last year to sign on to a letter from the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project opposing the new base construction and calling for the Futenma base to be closed. I also discussed our coordination with AOC’s office and having her meet Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki earlier this year, where they talked about the issues with the bases and the need to urgently address PFAS contamination, which AOC recently introduced an NDAA amendment for last month.

I also overviewed our other anti-war organizing in DSA, including on the war in Ukraine which ZENKO has been similarly doing in Japan, as well as our work in the Asia-Pacific region for opposing the new Cold War against China. I explained DSA’s commitment to anti-imperialism and anti-militarism and the long list of countries the International Committee has been organizing around to oppose US interventions, sanctions, coups, wars, and militarism across the world.

I was glad to see the audience’s enthusiasm for DSA’s work, and afterward the guest speaker from Iraq gave a speech on similar issues in the Middle East and indicated adding opposing US militarism in Iraq to the list I gave. The other international guests spoke on related themes in Korea, Philippines, Myanmar, and India, and we concluded the day with a concert and various groups performing dances and songs (yes we sang Solidarity Forever).

The second day of the assembly was hosted at a museum hall and consisted of 16 simultaneous workshops on different themes including internationalism, anti-militarism, electoral campaigns, labor organizing, education, transit, healthcare, and more. I presented at the workshop on international solidarity to stop the Henoko base construction and build peace in East Asia, and detailed our work on the ZHAP campaign and outlined our related regional work in Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Guam, and Hawaii.

A major theme of the discussion and one of the 12 resolutions ZENKO adopted was the need for regional cooperation to oppose the escalating US-led Cold War against China, which has led to new US military bases being established as well as increasing military budgets, joint military drills, new military alliances, upgraded weapons systems, and increasing tensions in the region. The other guests mirrored these concerns and stressed the need to build international coordination to oppose this rising militarism.

The discussion ended with a series of audience questions about DSA, politicizing young people, and why we organize for a socialist movement. I talked about the need to build working class power to wield against the capitalist class and the imperialist interests they represent in order to divest from wars and militarism and invest in people’s real needs. After a final gift exchange and a closing ceremony we concluded the assembly to roaring applause, and left the museum hall with the audience members to take to the streets for a demonstration and march outside the military base.

As I made my way to the airport that night I felt a sense of genuine relief knowing our comrades in Japan and Korea and elsewhere are all organizing together with us to avert the dangerous possibility of conflict breaking out and toward a common view of a more just world. If you’re a DSA member and want to join this struggle, consider joining the International Committee to continue this important work on the ZHAP campaign.

Gerard Dalbon is an organizer with the DSA International Committee and on the leadership of the NYC-DSA Anti-War Working Group.