Discuss as:

In Okinawa, the war isn't over: Protests aimed at US base expansion

Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP - Getty Images, file

Protesters demonstrate against the deployment of Osprey aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa during a Tokyo rally in November. More protests are planned over the large U.S. military presence on the island prefecture.

TOKYO -- As Japan prepares to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the nation's return to sovereignty and the end of U.S. occupation after World War II, some members of one community are getting ready to protest.

The Pentagon hopes to expand a facility in the seaside village of Henoko, Okinawa, as part of a plan to replace an existing base, and many residents aren't happy about it.

"We would like the United States to take back with them as many of these bases as they can," said Ikuo Nishikawa, an activist and native of Henoko who owns a hardware store.

Kyodo via Reuters, file

A Marine Corps Osprey aircraft flies to land at Futenma air base in crowded Ginowan, Okinawa. Some city residents are bothered by the base, but some residents of the town of Henoko, where an expansion is planned to replace it, are angry as well.

The Pentagon says 38,000 U.S. forces live in Japan, most of them in Okinawa, making up the largest American presence in the increasingly tense Pacific Rim. In addition to the 38,000 on shore, there are 11,000 service members based on ships, 5,000 civilian Defense Department workers and 43,000 family members.

Although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel earlier this month announced a plan to eventually return more than 2,500 acres of land to Okinawans, the last thing some islanders want to see is a larger base -- even though it would replace an existing one that is near the heart of a bigger city and thus considered by many to be a hazard.

Nishikawa, 69, said he was initially open to the idea of a new base in the village. It might have brought him more business.

But now he is worried, particularly since he started hearing people complain about noise from jets, crimes committed by servicemen and neighborhoods declining as more and more bars opened.

"I thought of it as other people's business," Nishikawa said. "It didn't occur to me how a base could destroy your living environment, how much pain it could cause.

"If you come here, this very area where we swim and catch our fish and shellfish, where we take our children to play, will be transformed into a military base. Even today, the two sides of our community are bases -- on the northern side and on the mountainside. And then with this new base, even our ocean will be occupied by a military base."

Despite the objections, Nishikawa concedes that many people in Okinawa rely on U.S. personnel and their families for their livelihoods and wouldn't think of protesting expansion of a base.

On a larger scale, the United States and Japan see a major presence in the country as critical to the security of both, and they work closely together to maintain it. The April 5 announcement included a promise from Hagel that "the United States will consolidate our forces over time and reduce our impact on the most populated parts of Okinawa."

Nonetheless, the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in favor of the Henoko expansion makes him and his government the target for much of the anger vented by Okinawans, some of whom say Abe is simply ignoring them. 

"As someone born and raised here, it's hard to accept," Nishikawa said. "The fact that the Japanese government has pushed through this proposal, it's a mockery against the people of Okinawa."

Okinawa's governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, has no qualms about stating his opinion on the matter. "The people of Okinawa prefecture are greatly dissatisfied," he said during an October panel discussion in Washington. "People have been requesting to relocate the bases for 15 or 16 years … but it's not happening."

Jiji Press / AFP - Getty Images, file

Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, shown speaking to reporters in October, has been vocal in his opposition of U.S. and Japanese government plans to expand a base in the seaside village of Henoko.

However, barring a sudden change of heart by the U.S., Okinawa's leaders or the central government, a fight for the future of Henoko seems certain to rage on, and U.S. forces will continue to be stationed on the island in large numbers in case real battles replace political ones.

There's not much the armed forces can do about the sensitive issue except try to foster good will on Okinawa, said Capt. Richard Ulsh, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon.

"We do our best to reach out to the people of Okinawa and try to help them understand, one, how important that island itself is to the Asia-Pacific region and, two, how important their support is to us ... [and] the major partner that Japan really is," he said.

All the outreach in the world may not be enough to appease islanders who are angry about bases and angry at their own government.

"As someone from Okinawa, I want to remind [Tokyo] about the last big war," said Nishikawa, the hardware store owner. "In the name of national interest, in order to prevent a battle on the mainland, 200,000 Okinawans were sacrificed.

"With that in mind, why is the government continuing to hurt us still?"

Related:

2 US sailors sentenced to prison for rape of woman in Okinawa

Japan's new PM vows tighter ties with the US

Full Japan coverage from NBC News