Okinawa Base Dooms Dugong

Plans to transfer a U.S. military airfield to Henoko in northern Okinawa have been fiercely, but in the end abortively, contested by Okinawan citizens. Construction of the airfield is now imminent in the coral sea off Henoko, the home of the dugong, a large water mammal that is a highly endangered species. Opponents of the base, which will destroy the remaining coral and Okinawa’s richest water plant life, continue to point to the heavy price the new base will impose on nature and on the Okinawan people.

Urashima Etsuko is a free-lance writer. This article appeared in Kinyobi October 25, 2002.

On a clear day in mid-September I went with Miyagi Yasuhiro of the Save the Dugong Campaign Center and people from the Dugong Preservation Foundation to see the reefs in Henoko where construction is planned for the joint-use military and civilian airport intended to replace the military airfield at Futenma. Our boat captain was a fisherman, uminchu in Okinawan language, who is a senior citizen born and raised in Henoko. So bitter is the local controversy surrounding the base that I cannot give his name, and will call him Mr. A.

Our boat set out from Henoko Fishing Port and glided toward the reefs over the peaceful inland waters, called ino in Okinawan, that sparkled emerald green. I gazed out over the beautiful coral sea, known locally as “prism ocean,” while a refreshing sea breeze caressing my cheeks gave me a feeling of liberation. Glittering silver near the ocean’s surface, a school of small fish bounded upward, chased by much larger fish. “The big ones are bonito,” Mr. A. told us. I could also see yellow sea serpents with black stripes swimming in the water.

The band where a row of white wave crests rise and the seawater changes to dark blue marks the border between the reefs, called bishi in Okinawan, and the open sea. Our boat headed in the direction of big Mananu Rock. Its shape resembles a large animal sitting on Mananu Reef, staring watchfully out at the open sea like a naturally formed guardian lion (shiisaa) protecting Henoko.

Village’s life-supporting zone is marked for destruction.

Published in 1998, Henoko Magazine describes the village as “nestled between hills, fields and the Pacific Ocean that blesses it with the sea’s abundance. . . . The reefs and inland sea comprise Henoko’s special life-supporting zone at the center of its economy. The ocean, like land in other villages, is closely connected to people’s lives and livelihoods, not only for those who fish, but for all villagers, and the areas of the ocean that people depend on have been given place names.”

Henoko residents don’t bother waiting for flood tide. Around the 1st and 15th of the month by the lunar calendar, they ferry their boats-sabani wooden row boats in the old days and motor boats more recently-over the shallows to the wide reefs, and hunt for octopus, turbines, and shellfish. An elderly woman told me how they would would fish off the reefs at night for frogfish. “We caught so many of them our boat almost sank,” she recalled with a bright smile. Mr. A. told us that when he was young he used to swim in the inland waters between the reefs and the rocks on the shore to catch fish and octopus that would feed his family.

Stretching north from Mananu Reef, about 900 meters long and 350 meters at its widest point, are the reefs called Usunukiri, Ushiri, and Fubishi (meaning largest reef) which is 1500 meters long. To the south facing the shore is Kunjida Reef, named for a village of the past where fishermen from Itoman once lived. Mr. Miyagi handed us a map from Henoko Magazine of the coast, indicating these place names, on which he had marked the area designated by the Japanese government for the new base. I was shocked to see that all the reefs described above, including Fubishi and Kunjida, would be buried under the base.

The dugong, too, would lose their food.

Openings between reefs, called “mouths” (kuchi), form channels from the inland waters to the open sea. These “mouths” were the water lanes used by sabani fishing boats and by the Yanbaru Line of ships that transported firewood, charcoal, and other wood products from this local area and brought food and other daily necessities here in the days before roads were built on land. These “mouths” also serve as access routes from the open sea to the inland waters for the dugong who swim in to feed on the plants that grow there on the sandy ocean floor. This bed of sea plants is called jan gusanumii (dugong’s favorite grass). The map shows that the five mouths, Asaguchi, Mananuguchi, Nakaguchi, Kaamantaguchi (kaamanta means ray fish), and Hijaguchi, would all be crushed and buried under the new base. So, even if the bed of sea plants were somehow to survive the erosion of earth and sand from the base’s construction and the subsequent contamination of chemical pollutants, the dugong could still not reach the food their lives depend on. On September 22nd and 23rd the Japan League for the Preservation of Nature conducted an on-site survey of marine plants in the Henoko area. One of the participants, Professor Nakaoka Masahiro who is a biologist at Chiba University, reported, “We found plants distributed over a much wider tract than aerial photographs have shown. This is the largest bed in all of Okinawa Main Island, and the fact that it includes so many varieties indicates the health and diversity of this environment.” And Yoshida Masahito, head of the League’s Research Department, said that this information, confirmed in repeated surveys, must be conveyed to the Japanese government for their environmental assessment.

Dugong living in the ocean off Henoko have many and varied connections with the lives and livelihoods of people in the village. Dugong are viewed as messengers from the gods in Nirai Kanai, the mythical realm beyond the eastern sea, who bestow good health and bountiful harvests; and, as bearers of the nourishment that supports human life. The abundant ocean they have come to represent is now in grave danger. If the reefs are destroyed, both the inland waters that sustain people’s lives and the bed of sea plants that sustains the lives of dugong will vanish. Each of us must ask ourselves what we should do before it is too late.

Translated by Steve Rabson

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