OKINAWA, Japan – This is my first trip to Japan; what a time to visit.
Everywhere, televisions are tuned to local news stations broadcasting endless images of toppled buildings, submerged cars and now, a seriously damaged nuclear power plant. At the bottom of each screen is a map of Japan, much of its coastline an urgent red, indicating places still at risk of a tsunami. Phone lines are down in the waterlogged north, so people here in the south have been unable to reach family and friends there. The Okinawa airport is clogged with tired travelers waiting to get out.
It’s a scenario I could not have imagined when I arrived six days ago for a journalism fellowship with the East-West Center to learn about the U.S.-Japan alliance — an increasingly significant relationship as China transforms itself into the dominant regional power, roaring past Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.
But yesterday, the tectonic plates shifted and so did everyone’s focus. We were in Okinawa, home to the largest U.S. military installation in the Asia-Pacific region, when the quake hit. Officers at Kadena Air Base continued with their planned briefing on military strategy in the region but we could hear staff just outside the room making calls to put a state of emergency plan in place: Tsunami warnings meant all beaches needed to be cleared.
Today, military representatives here say their focus is on getting supplies to the hardest hit areas in the north. According to Major Randall Bocaru, the marines plan to send helicopters from Kadena, but with damage to infrastructure there, they have been delayed as have Japanese defense forces.
Even with their help in responding to this disaster, the U.S. military’s presence in Okinawa remains controversial. American officials say keeping troops here is necessary to maintaining stability in the region, but an increasing number of Okinawans want the base gone. The town’s mayor was recently elected on a platform of curbing U.S. military operations here.
Activists stage daily sit-ins on the beach where the military is now building an additional airplane runway. But today, for the first time since last year’s typhoon, they were not there. The beach had been evacuated and they had moved to higher ground.