Stories from Okinawa

Background - 7 January, 2016
The stories of six courageous people who are taking action to save the dugongs and protect Okinawa's rich ocean life for future generations.

The ocean home of the last few Japanese dugongs is about to be landfilled to make way for two airstrips – part of the expansion of a US military base on the island of Okinawa. But a movement nearly 18 years old is standing up to say NO.

The struggle is reaching a fever pitch. The majority of Okinawa's people – from students to grandparents and the local governor – have voiced their opposition to the plans. But construction work continues. There are daily scuffles outside the base as protesters attempt to prevent bulldozers and equipment from entering the bay.

Here are the stories of six courageous people who are taking action to save the dugongs and protect the rich ocean life for future generations.

Photos by Ian Teh.

Muneyoshi Kayoh is 93 years old and lives with his wife Yoshiko. He is a retired veteran and farmer and was severely injured during WWII while serving in the Japanese navy. A popular figure among protesters, he is affectionately called Grandpa Kayoh. He wants to see all military bases out of Okinawa.

Mr. Shin Nishihira was born and raised in Okinawa. He has been leading a local diving team called Snack Snufkin for 10 years. Shin collects items from the sea around Oura Bay to document all the things that will be lost if the base fills the bay to make way for a military airstrip.

SLIDESHOW: Across the island there are signs of resistance to the US Marine base.

Mr. Hiroshi Ahitomi, 69 years old, lives in Nago City, Okinawa. Hiroshi was a public welfare officer in the Okinawa administration. Now he co-leads a citizens group called the Anti-Helicopter Base Council. The group was founded in 1997 Nago City after a plebiscite on the question of whether to build a new base.

Mr. Takuma Higashionna, 53 years old, is a Member of the Nago City Council on Okinawa, and a member of Anti-Helicopter Base Council citizens group.

Mr. Takekiyo Toguchi, 58 years old, is a road contractor for Nago City. Nineteen years ago he had his first child. Over time it made him think about their future. Eleven years ago Takekiyo decided to start the Peace Candle Protest. This happens every Saturday evening and takes a calmer note to the daytime protests.

SLIDESHOW: Everyday at 6 AM, the protestors gather outside the entrance of camp Schwab. Many are elderly people who try to block the entrance using their bodies. The struggle is hitting an all-time high, with local politicians joining residents in standing up to the central government. Last month, the government of Japan sent extra forces from Tokyo to try to control the situation.

Ms Yuri Soma, 38 years old, is an activist with the Anti-Helicopter Base Council and captain of the protest boat Henoko Dream. She hopes to see a day when there is no base and no need for any army.

"Environmental protests are often seen from the outside as stories reduced to a series of soundbites by the media. My aim is to introduce the personalities behind the activists, their personal stories and motivations in their journey to protect the environment. This story is about the people behind the environmental campaign." — Ian Teh, photographer.