Photo/IllutrationRiot police remove people opposed to a project to build helipads for the U.S. military in northern Okinawa Prefecture on July 22. (Koichi Ueda)

  • Photo/Illustraion

HIGASHI, Okinawa Prefecture–Anti-U.S. base demonstrators and riot police clashed here on July 22, when authorities started removing a barricade set up to obstruct a project to build helipads for the U.S. military.

The Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau, which oversees the helipad project, said the barricade, consisting mainly of vehicles, had been dismantled and that construction has resumed.

But the scuffles involved showed that the protesters are far from ending their opposition to the project.

About 100 riot police arrived at a path leading to helipad construction sites near the Takae district of Higashi village in the prefecture’s northern region around 5:30 a.m.

About 200 residents, conservationists and activists had already assembled there to keep the barricade intact. Some lied down or sat on the path to block the police.

However, the riot police forcibly removed the demonstrators. Shoving matches ensued and screams of anger were heard when the protesters were carried away from the site.

“Are you going to lend a hand in the destruction of Yanbaru?” one of the protesters shouted, referring to the forest where helipads will be installed.

“We are against the helipad for Osprey,” screamed another, referring to the tilt-rotor aircraft used by the U.S. military.

One woman complained of being ill and requested help from emergency workers.

As of 11 a.m., the vehicle barricade had been removed, but more than 100 cars were still parked on the sides of the road to hinder the project. Supply vehicles still cannot enter the construction sites.

The United States in 1996 agreed to return to Japan about half of the land of Camp Gonsalves, the 7,800-hectare U.S. Marine Corps jungle warfare training area straddling Higashi and neighboring Kunigami village.

One condition of the agreement was that six helipads would be built in the vicinity of Takae, to replace those in the area to be returned to Japan.

Construction started in 2007, and two helipads were completed by 2014.

But work to build the four other helipads was suspended after opponents blockaded the path.

On July 11, the day after Upper House election, the defense bureau started preparations to resume the project.

Vehicles loaded with equipment entered the camp through the main gate of the training area that day.

The entrance is about 2 kilometers from the place where the demonstrators have long held protests and sit-ins.

In June, Governor Takeshi Onaga asked the demonstrators in writing to remove the vehicles from the protest site, saying the central government had asked for his cooperation with the helipad project.

But the governor also expressed displeasure with the bureau for transporting equipment without notifying the prefectural government in advance, calling it a “surprise.”

Onaga and the central government have been locked in a long-running battle over the heavy presence of U.S. military bases in the southernmost prefecture.

The central government on July 22 filed a lawsuit against Okinawa Prefecture with the aim of resuming work to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, also in the prefecture.

In Tokyo, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the government restarted work in Higashi.

“We are determined to make our utmost efforts to achieve the return of the agreed-upon part of the camp as soon as possible by steadily proceeding with the construction project,” Nakatani told reporters on July 22.

He said the ministry wants to resume the project now because time is limited, citing the season for nest building by wild birds in Yanbaru forest.