Introduction: Sixteen years ago, in 1987, Ui Jun left his post as an assistant in the engineering department at Tokyo University to go to Okinawa, then becoming an important new front in the anti-pollution struggle. With three of Japan’s five most polluted rivers, and with the nation’s worst water pollution, tropical Okinawa was simultaneously the crucible of American military bases, Japan’s poorest prefecture and its most polluted. Ui’s report is the summation of his sixteen years of teaching, research and working in the environmental movement on Okinawa.
A lifelong experimenter, Ui began his lifelong commitment to science in the second grade when he observed that adding vinegar to the juice of morning glory turned the blue juice red. After graduating in applied chemistry at Tokyo University, Ui went to work for Nippon Zeon, a company that used mercury as a catalyst in producing fertilizer and other products, disposing of the waste in the river.
Zeon released the effluent secretly into the river at night, Ui recalled. About the time that he returned to Tokyo University after working for three years at Zeon, the news broke about the deadly mercury poisoning that was soon labeled Minamata disease, the product of the Chisso Corporation’s polluting the water at its chemical plants.
Ui’s research showed that if one put the crystal of methyl mercury, which was the pollutant from the factory disposal water on fish and fed it to cats, the result was Minamata disease. The cause and effect relationship was found within the factory. But, he recalled, “when I discussed it with colleagues in the medical school, no one wanted to listen, perhaps because medical research was funded by the company.”
1968-69, at the time of the university struggles in Japan, Ui was researching pollution and water purification in Scandinavia. He returned to find that the students he had studied with had scattered: some had been jailed, some were in hospital with injuries incurred in the student struggles, some had joined sects and their whereabouts were unknown. The civil engineering department was in shambles after the administration called in the police to quell student protests.
No one in the engineering school was interested in the study of pollution. So Ui, a lowly assistant, after winning support of Tokyo University President, Kato Ichiro, was granted permission to set up a lecture series, with all classes open to the public. Because the course was offered at night, Ui was able to ignore strictures that he stick closely to technical questions and ignore issues of political economy such as power and profit that he quickly realized were central to the understanding of environmental pollution. Beginning in 1970, Jishu Koza, as the series was called, initiated both the first extended study of pollution in Japanese universities and the citizens movement to publicize and combat pollution. Within a year, eight hundred people, many of them traveling great distances, were attending the lectures and investigating and fighting pollution in their localities.
But this open democratic approach, enormously successful in the cultivation of a generation of citizen-scientist civic activists, and the model for the subsequent anti-nuclear forum established by the late Takagi Jinzaburo, did not impress Ui’s employers at Tokyo University. They refused him any promotion, keeping him longer on the lowest level, joshu or assistant, for more than fifteen years, longer than almost anybody in the history of the institution, and shed no tears at his departure for Okinawa.
This article appeared in Gunshuku (Arms Reduction), May 2003, pp. 18-25.
The sixteen years since 1986 when I moved to the University of Okinawa from my position as research assistant at the University of Tokyo have gone by in a flash and I have reached retirement from the university. During the time I taught environmental theory in independent courses at the University of Tokyo, I had planned to stay there as an assistant until my retirement and then go to Okinawa. However, I was shamed by my senior colleague, Professor Tamanoi Yoshirô, who said that with my leisurely attitude the island would dissolve before I got there. Indeed, when I came to Okinawa it turned out to be almost too late, and I must admit that time had run out while I had been trying to tackle the problems in front of me one after another. I had absolutely no time to dig and try to figure out why things had come to this state.
The overall picture is quite clear. Okinawa, which makes up just 0.6 per cent of Japan’s land, contains more than 70 per cent of the U.S. military bases. If the U.S. bases were spread out evenly, Okinawa would have more or less 0.6 per cent of them, but it has more than one hundred times that share. Since this is clearly an enormous burden, it creates all kinds of frictions. The central government pours huge sums of money on to this little island as compensation for the burden that it places on Okinawa and each unexpected incident that occurs there. Most of the funds are for construction projects, which do not match Okinawa’s reality, so they end up being utterly destructive to the coral reefs and primeval forests that symbolize the subtropical environment. For example, after the 1995 incident in which three GIs raped a twelve year-old girl, 5 billion yen were immediately provided. 10 billion yen were provided when the prefectural governor changed from an anti-base reformist to a pro-base conservative. When it was decided that an alternative to Futenma base would be built in Northern Okinawa, twelve cities and towns were promised 10 billion yen per year for a duration of ten years – a total of 100 billion yen – for public-works projects. The sixteen years of my stay in Okinawa have been a continuous and never-ending struggle against these destructive developmental projects. I meekly accept the criticism that things have come to this state because I have been engaged in minor details without fighting against the fundamental problem of the Japan-U.S. security system. However, just as doctors cannot leave sick people to their own devices, technicians cannot help getting engaged in the problems they can handle right in front of them and they worry day and night about how to distribute their abilities. In the case of Okinawa, since examples of excellent research regarding the contradictions of the Japan-U.S. security system and its burden on Okinawa are produced even under difficult circumstances and are available close at hand – for instance that of Arasaki Moriteru – one cannot help but allocate one’s own energy and time to address immediate problems. Having reached the end of my work after sixteen years in Okinawa, it is necessary to reevaluate the choices I made. Just as I was beginning to think about this, I was given the opportunity to write about foreign policy through the lens of Okinawa, and so I have tried to take up the matter here.
Right now, what goes on at U.S. military bases today is discussed when waste oil flows outside a base as a result of accidents, but there is hardly any accumulation of concrete data. Thus the possibility of harmful substances inside bases became an issue only in 1995 after the return of the Onna Communication Base to Japan. There, it was found that the soil left inside the purification tanks, which was considered as fertilizer, turned out to contain high concentrations of harmful substances including mercury, cadmium, arsenic and PCBs, and the idea of using it as fertilizer was abandoned. Until then, I think that the possibility of harmful substances on U.S. military bases had hardly been discussed.
There had been news that could have become a key to understanding the issues at hand if attention had been paid to them. The Fukuchi Dam, which provides most of the water to the main island of Okinawa is used by the U.S. armed forces for river crossing exercises. It was reported numerous times that in the forest surrounding the dam, large amounts of unused munitions had been thrown away. It just so happened that the abandonment of munitions was discovered during biological surveys on the maneuver grounds in the Northern parts of the island. At the time of the Persian Gulf War, the use of depleted uranium munitions became an issue. However, it was only in 1997 that the United States Marines admitted using munitions containing depleted uranium during its exercises from 1995 to 1996 on the islands west of Kume Island, acknowledged that this was a violation of the Law for the Regulation of Nuclear Power in Japan, and notified the Japanese government that most of the munitions had been recovered and removed. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not pass on this information to the prefectural government of Okinawa and the citizens of Okinawa prefecture only learned about the problem through an article in the Washington Times. This announcement itself was made reluctantly after a Japanese television station had come to report it, and if there had been no television coverage, it probably never would have come to light. The Japanese government subsequently carried out two surveys of the concerned area and reported that – with the exception of the immediate surroundings of the remaining abandoned munitions – high figures indicating pollution were not recorded.
The existence of this kind of pollution cannot be ascertained unless exhaustive tests are conducted. I had the bitter experience of taking and analyzing samples from several places that seemed polluted within Futenma Base without finding anything suspicious. To find this kind of pollution, one must collect samples in broad daylight with a detailed map indicating where the munitions had actually hit. Otherwise, one will be unable to identify the real state of pollution. One also needs high-level experience in sample taking. In any case, we can assume that it is still premature to conclude that pollution from depleted uranium does not exist or that one does not need to worry about it.
When the transfer of the airport away from the Futenma Base and its return to Japan became a political issue as a result of the 1995 rape, apprehensions regarding base contamination came to the fore. The data about the pollution of the soil in the purification tanks at Onna Communication Base were published right after that incident.
However, regarding the return of land that has been polluted, Paragraph 1 of Article 4 of the Status of the United States Armed Forces Agreement clearly states that the responsibility for the reestablishment of status quo ante does not lie with the United States. When we rent a house in our everyday lives, it is common sense to agree to return the house to its previous state when we move out. From this perspective, it seems obvious that if the value of the land has decreased due to pollution, the renters should return it after removing the pollution at their own cost. Thus this clause seems very one-sided. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims, however, that this clause should be seen against Paragraph 2 of Article 4, which provides that the Japanese government does not have to pay for the facilities and buildings constructed by the U.S. armed forces when the land is returned. Thus, considered as a whole, they argue that Article 4 is bilateral and equal. Certainly, the area had probably been wasteland when it was adopted as a base, so returning it with the facilities and buildings on it might have increased the land’s value to Japan’s advantage. However, as with a rented house, one usually anticipates the problem of diminished value due to wear and tear and dirt. From this commonsense perspective, Article 4 as a whole is utterly unilateral and no doubt disadvantageous for Japan. Was this not considered when the agreement was formulated? Or perhaps there was no other way due to the unequal power relations between the two parties.