The source of all life force, traditional Okinawan belief holds, is "Nirai Kanai" - a world far out in the sea where the gods reside. These spirits send blessings from the mythical place surrounded by brilliant blue waters.
This time, though, the gods of Nirai Kanai might be the ones in need of help. After decades of a deeply resented American and Japanese military presence on land, a new threat has come to the sea itself. Plans are in place for a sea-based airport, the first of its kind, for the United States Marines. Critics say it could devastate a sensitive coral reef off the coast of Henoko, a village near Nago City, Japan.
Opponents, including environmental groups from both sides of the Pacific, call the air station an ecologically catastrophe on a sea replete with irreplaceable biodiversity. But Okinawa is Japan's poorest prefecture, and a large minority near Henoko appears to support the proposed base in hopes of an economic boost.
Although the struggle over the Marine base in Okinawa sounds typical - US bases generate local protests around the world - it runs deeper and involves an array of competing interests not only internationally but within Japan itself. For one thing, the opposition is more cultural than political, more antiwar than anti-American. For another, the US military is actually trying to reduce its community footprint. But for the US to find the right balance - in one of the most strategic outposts in East Asia - will prove tricky, analysts say, especially if it encroaches on one of the world's most diverse marine environments.
"Villages like Henoko still have a somewhat traditional lifestyle, and within that lifestyle, nature has an important place," says Jonathan Taylor of California State University in Fullerton, who is studying Okinawan social movements. "Even if they never swim in the ocean, just knowing that the ocean is clean is an important thing. [The new base] is going to disrupt that."
American defense planners say that Okinawa's location, sometimes called "the tip the spear," is strategic because it lies close to such hot spots as North Korea and the Taiwan Strait. The Pentagon has consistently rejected calls to diminish troop deployments here on the grounds that the perception of a pullout risks a power vacuum and possible aggression from China or North Korea.
But the stance conflicts with values many Okinawans hold dear. Okinawan culture has always been peaceful, and the devastation of the main island during a World War II battle has cemented local antiwar sentiment. When Japan first annexed the islands in the 19th century, Okinawans vehemently opposed its plans to station garrisons there, reasoning that a military buildup could attract trouble.
In other countries, opposition to US military bases rarely stems from such longstanding cultural attitudes. It's usually precipitated by a particular tragic incident. When two South Korean girls died under the wheels of an American military vehicle in 2002, Korean demonstrators burned US flags and attacked Seoul's Camp Gray with firebombs. The Iraq war has also inspired resistance in places like Germany, where activists have organized blockades of American bases, and Italy, where demonstrators have sought to block trains carrying US personnel and arms shipments.
If anything, the sea-based airport is an American attempt to reduce the military's "footprint" on Okinawa proper. The proposed offshore facility would allow the demolition of Marine Air Station Futenma, a 1,200-acre land base that dominates about 45 percent of populous Ginowan City. Okinawans have wanted it gone for years because of concerns about pollution, crime, and potentially catastrophic plane crashes.
The Futenma base is "an accident waiting to happen" says Mike Mochizuki, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "The main point of [the sea base plan] is to find an alternative."
The Special Action Committee on Okinawa, a joint US-Japan project, decided in 1996 that the best option was to replace it with an offshore base, so the military could maintain its troop levels while minimizing local impacts. The extensive land used by the military, and a series of widely reported rapes by American servicemen, have contributed to a vigorous antibase attitude in Okinawa.
The base's environmental risks worry people far outside Okinawa. The island's reefs support an array of marine life, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef in terms of diversity.
Okinawa is "the Galápagos of the East," says Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of six conservation groups suing the US Department of Defense in an attempt to halt the new base. Nine endangered species - among them three species of sea turtle and the critically endangered dugong - rely on the site where the base will be built. Construction will eliminate the most important habitat and food source for the 50 or so dugong manatees that remain alive.
"The environmental losses are likely to be far greater than what little economic gains Nago residents may reap," says Koji Taira, founder of an Okinawan studies journal called The Ryukyuanist.
Some defense experts also question the plan. "Overall, I think most Okinawans will say, 'We got a tiny little benefit here: We moved this out of the city,' " says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "But the overall presence of the US in Okinawa will still be visible ... and a bit much for the size of the island."
Nevertheless, the base plan enjoys considerable support, including that of the US military and the Japanese government. The Marines will carry out the move "as soon as [Japan] has built a new facility that meets all of the air station's needs," says a Marine spokesman, Capt. Christopher Perrine. Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, often voices support for the plan to show that his administration will "sincerely make efforts to reduce" Okinawa's "heavy burden."
"The Marines don't need to move - they're perfectly happy where they are now," says John Purves, a historian on the island. But "the Japanese government wants [the base] moved up north, to a more remote area, because there will be fewer people complaining about it." Japanese construction firms are also eager for the billion-dollar contracts the high-tech base promises, he adds.
Henoko's economy, too, is expected to gain, which is why a significant portion of the local populace backs the project. A 1997 referendum conducted in the affected Nago area showed the public split (53 percent opposed the base, 45 percent approved). But only 8 percent of voters said they unambiguously supported building the facility, while the rest said they approved because they expected economic benefits for the Nago region. Polls of the entire island suggested substantially more opposition.
Whether the Japanese government will listen is another matter. The island has little political clout. Of 452 representatives in Japan's Diet, just five represent Okinawa. That's one large reason the vast majority of American bases in Japan are sited there.
"If [the bases] were located in Kanagawa Prefecture rather than in Okinawa, [Japan] would have thrown us out years ago," says Chalmers Johnson, head of the Japan Policy Research Institute. "With 38 military bases occupying 20 percent of the best land in Okinawa, it seems to me a crime to build a 39th."