Okinawa and Vietnam: bound by war

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Faded glory: the author, Jon Mitchell, in front of the main gate of Camp Reasoner as seen today. Camp Reasoner, located in Da Nang, was the US"ˆMarine Corps base during the Vietnam War.

The small Japanese island of Okinawa, located 1,500 km southwest of Tokyo, is infamous for the bitter battle that took place there during the final days of World War Two.

In the spring of 1945, 180,000 US soldiers clashed with 120,000 Japanese troops, catching Okinawa civilians in the crossfire; almost a third of the population lost their lives.

However less well-known is the suffering the islanders have been forced to endure since the end of that war. In 1952, the US military was granted control of Okinawa under the Treaty of San Francisco and soon it took advantage of the island's influential location in the South China Sea.

First, the American authorities tricked farmers off their land and evicted others at bayonet-point, then they proceeded to build dozens of installations to transform the island into its so-called "Keystone of the Pacific". These bases were first used in the Korean War (1950-53) during which the US sent B-29 bombers from Okinawa on raids against Communist forces. At the same time, the military began to stockpile nuclear weapons and large volumes of chemical weapons - including sarin, mustard and nerve gas - on the island.

However, it was the American conflict in Vietnam which wrought the largest impact on Okinawa. The island served as the primary staging post for the conflict. All supplies - ranging from guns and ammunition to coffins and Agent Orange - passed through Okinawa. Troops were trained in the northern jungles. The first US Marines to land on Da Nang's beaches in 1965 were dispatched from the island. In the same year, Admiral Ulysses Sharp, Commander of US Pacific Forces, announced "Without Okinawa, we cannot carry on the Vietnam War."

This flood of US troops and civilian contractors overlaid a new cartography on the island's landscape. Neighborhoods were given easier to pronounce English names such as "The Bush", "B.C. Street" and "Four Corners". These areas existed alongside so many military installations that a saying arose among Okinawan residents: "We don't just have bases - we are a base."

In autumn 2012, I came to Vietnam in order to understand better these connections between the American war and Okinawa. During my stay, I visited former mountain strongholds abandoned by French imperialists and witnessed the landscape scarred by bombs dropped from Okinawa-launched B-52s. On the outskirts of Da Nang, I saw the concrete sign for former US Marine Corps base, Camp Reasoner. It was overgrown with vines, but after brushing them aside, I could read the slogan of the men who used to serve here: "Silent - Swift - Deadly".

It was this faded sign that encapsulated the point at which the histories of Vietnam and Okinawa diverge. US troops left Vietnam in 1975 but today there are still tens of thousands of American service members on Okinawa occupying 37 installations built on the island's best farming land. Although Okinawa returned to nominal Japanese control in 1972, the bases remain and it is as though the island still exists in a parallel universe where the US never lost the war in Vietnam.

At the moment, the US military takes up 20 percent of Okinawa's main island but contributes to barely 5 percent of its economy; it hobbles investment and deters infrastructural improvements due to uncertainties over the island's future.

On the other hand, the energy on 24-hour display in Vietnam's streets offers a compelling model for what a post-base Okinawa could become - the former US installations converted into industrial zones and beachfront bases turned over to parks and hotels.

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However there is one further obstacle blocking Okinawa's growth - potential dioxin contamination caused by Agent Orange. During the 1960s and "˜70s, the island was a transit hub for the defoliant as it was shipped from the US to Vietnam.

According to US documents and veterans' testimonies I've collected during two years of research, Agent Orange was both stored on the island in huge volumes and sprayed around installations to keep vegetation under control. Former service members also recount how large numbers of barrels of the herbicide were buried on the island following Washington's prohibition on its use in the early 1970s.

For decades, the Pentagon had kept quiet on the presence of Agent Orange on Okinawa. But last month, it announced the results of an investigation it had ordered in response to my research into Agent Orange on the island. The conclusion? Agent Orange was never present on Okinawa. To anyone with even a passing knowledge of US policy regarding defoliants, such a result is unsurprising.

To learn more about the impact of these poisons I visited Dioxin Center #3 run by Da Nang Association for Victims of Agent Orange / Dioxin (DAVA) - a government-sponsored organization which offers support to survivors.

As I saw babies with malformed limbs, children born without eyes, adults with the minds of toddlers, Nguyen Thi Hien, President of DAVA, told me: "Da Nang has approximately 5,000 victims of Agent Orange. They are the third generation and there's no end in sight."

The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that as many as three million people in the country are suffering from the effects of dioxin today - Agent Orange harms not only those directly sprayed but their children and grandchildren, too.

The realization that these poisons had been shipped via Okinawa was an appalling reminder of the bonds that continue to tie Vietnam to the island. However, in one small way, the people of Vietnam are luckier than those of Okinawa.

Decades of independent scientific research has highlighted more than 20 dioxin hotspots on former US bases in Vietnam. But US authorities have repeatedly refused to authorize similar environmental tests on the bases currently under its jurisdiction on Okinawa. This has left many residents, and US service personnel, worried about potential contamination in the areas where they work, eat and sleep.

In August, 2012, the US embarked upon its much-hyped cleanup of Agent Orange contamination at the former Air Base in Da Nang. Its insistence that this operation was solely environmental - and in no way related to any human health effects - angered many critics. It also suggested that its sudden decision to clean up Da Nang after decades of refusal was motivated by political considerations - namely, a desire to counter Chinese aspirations in the region.

Such territorial tensions with China are disturbingly familiar to Okinawan residents. During the past year, Japan has witnessed escalating friction in its own backyard following Tokyo's purchase of the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands located approximately 400 kilometers west of Okinawa. This has sparked an ongoing diplomatic crisis between Japan and China. While in public, the US has urged for a peaceful solution, many Okinawan residents worry that Washington will exacerbate the dispute to justify its presence in the region while furthering its own strategic goals.

Sadly this is an identical story to Vietnam. Throughout both Okinawa and Vietnam's histories, the residents of both regions have repeatedly suffered as proxies in the clash of greater powers.

Once more these look like troubling times ahead. Following the end of World War Two, the US stepped onto the global stage as the predominant economic and military superpower. Today, seven decades later, its influence, like that of all past empires, is on the wane.

For better or for worse, it seems inevitable that China will inherit America's mantle. But what is less sure is how that handover will play out. History offers few hopeful scenarios: empires tend to go down fighting and drag whole continents into violent uproar. For the people of Okinawa and Vietnam to be spared more generations thrust into the frontlines of war, the lessons of the past must be learned and applied, lest this region become awash in blood yet again.


1400s:  Okinawa, an independent kingdom, starts a trading relationship with China which stays out of the island's domestic affairs in return for tributary of goods.

1609:   Japanese samurai invade Okinawa and take share of Okinawa's trading profits. For the next 270 years, Okinawa exists in a gray zone.

1879:   Okinawa becomes a prefecture of Japan; Japan introduces policies to bring Okinawa in line with the rest of the country - including the suppression of the island's culture and language.

1920s:  Widespread famine causes tens of thousands to leave Okinawa in search of work overseas and in mainland Japan (where they experience widespread discrimination).

1945:   Battle of Okinawa kills 145,000 Okinawan civilians.

1952:   Treaty of San Francisco ends the Allied Occupation of mainland Japan but Okinawa remains under US administration.

1959:   US jet crashes into Miyamori Elementary School killing 17 people.

1969:   Leak of nerve gas on base sickens 23 US GI's - and confirms suspicions that island houses bio-chemical weapons.

1970:   3,000 Okinawans participate in anti-US riot in Koza City, burning more than 80 US cars and injuring 60+ Americans.

1972:   Okinawa reverts to Japanese control after Tokyo pays US$650 million to Washington in a secret agreement.

1995:   Following the gang rape of an Okinawan child, Washington and Tokyo make an agreement to reduce the US military presence on Okinawa.

2012:   Despite a 100,000-person rally, US stations V-22 Osprey aircraft on island.

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By Jon Mitchell, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 8th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
*Jon Mitchell is a Welsh-born writer based in Yokohama. In 2012, Defoliated Island, a TV documentary based upon his research into Agent Orange on Okinawa, won national acclaim in Japan. The opinions expressed are his own.

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