The way of doing volunteer in Takae
Right, so a little about the volunteer experience itself. I went mid-February 2013, which was very much a heated time of great need for volunteers, seeing as it was important to show that even now resistance was still very much alive and kicking, despite six years having passed since its initial start-up. This was because upon entering March and continuing up until June, sit-ins would temporarily come to an end, due to it being the nest building and mating season of the endangered flightless bird, the Okinawa Rail. As to not disturb the bird during this period, the use of heavy machinery in the construction of the new helipads has been officially banned. Therefore, with the construction work in temporary hibernation, Takae residents can spend this time to take care of much neglected work to ensure income that will allow them to continue the resistance from June again.
Knowing very little of Takae’s situation prior to my visit, I had no idea as to what to expect. I did have some experience doing volunteer work in the tsunami affected areas of north-eastern Japan, and so I suppose I expected the way of conducting volunteer to be somewhat similar. For those interested, the reality of a disaster relief volunteer in Japan is often like this.
Rise early. Work until the sun sets. Participate in the daily meeting where each day’s activities are reported and reflected upon. Completion of any chores pertaining to the specific accommodation. Socialize with fellow volunteers in any spare time (alcohol is strictly forbidden). Lights go out around 11pm. Rise the next morning again and repeat.
My volunteer experience at Takae however, turned out to be quite different, apart from one little thing – early rise. At Takae, “early rise” is perhaps an understatement. You rise (if you can) around 5am, and in the pitch-black darkness you head towards the gathering point near one of the gates. There you receive instructions and necessary equipment to carry out your designated task. Some receive walkie-talkies and station themselves sporadically along the road leading towards the base’s many gates, reporting on suspicious passing vehicles. One of the things they are on the look-out for is whether private cars hide construction workers crouching under blankets and the like. Construction workers have attempted to sneak in like this in the past due to that should they try entering the base in an obvious way volunteers would attempt to link hands and block the road. Other volunteers receive protest signs and are asked to head out towards one of the gates and await further instructions. As the clock approaches 8, the need for active presence usually comes to an end seeing as people commuting to their jobs at the base have already entered, and hopefully gotten the message. After this, unless there’s any special activity that calls for a significant number of volunteers, you are actually free to do whatever you want the remaining part of the day. This is one of the interesting characteristics as a volunteer at Takae. The whole activity is focused into the early wee hours of morning as to have the means to prevent construction workers entering the base should they appear, as well as also working as a means of mental warfare towards those employed at the base.
Anyhow, here’s how I commonly spent the abundance of free time. First I’d sit in one of the sit-in tents and listen to residents and long-term volunteers talk about Takae’s specific situation as well as Okinawa in a greater political context. They’d show me useful resources related to Takae and Okinawa, and sometimes visiting groups of people would come to hear about Takae’s situation firsthand. My first day as a volunteer happened to be quite special seeing as it was also the first time Takae, as a small unknown village of 160 people made the front page of one of Okinawa’s largest newspapers, Okinawa Times. Whether it was in relation to this or not I do not know, but that morning we were also visited by the Okinawan politician Keiko Itokazu, a member of the House of Councilors who is contra- U.S bases in Okinawa. The following day came party officials to have their picture taken in front of the many protest banners. I was always amazed by the lunch we were provided on site each day. It was often prepared and brought out by Takae residents to the volunteers sitting in the tents, and this was no humble lunch I may add. This token of gratitude alone was more than I had ever expected, and as to top it all off I was touched beyond measures to learn of a mother and her daughter who took time every week to cook in their home for 20 people, drive the two hours it takes to get to Takae and deliver it still steaming hot to the awaiting volunteers. Although living far away made it impossible for them to participate in the morning sit-ins, they sure showed us their warm intentions - I thought to myself.
Afternoons and early evenings were usually spent completely freely with no fixed program. One day we helped out a local farmer removing weeds from one of his fields. Another day we split up into two groups, where some went to another town in the Higashi area to see a newly released movie on Okinawa in the post-war context, Himawari, while others went to Nago city to observe a political conference live where relevant issues were to be discussed. In other words, the content of these activities would depend entirely on what time you’re there.
What completely blew me away however were the late evenings. I was used to lights out at 11, no alcohol and zero tolerance for loud voice. In the volunteer accommodation however these rules may just as well never have existed. There was no evening meeting, instead, dinner, sometimes feast, was had in the late evening with beers and stronger drinks too for those up for it. Loud chatting? No problem. Takae residents also visited sometimes, bringing food and instruments, and before you could blink people were playing, singing and dancing for joy until late late night. I remember thinking, “no way all of us are gonna get up at 5 tomorrow”…and actually I was right. Those who could get up in time for the sit-ins were welcomed, and those who couldn’t? well that’s okay too, another day hey.
This is the kind of easy-going and carefree impression I was left with from my volunteer experience. I was also amazed at the stark contrast between serious protest in the morning and carefree joyous fun at night. But I suppose it makes sense as together they provide balance and make the volunteer stay into something truly enjoyable.
As regards the protests themselves, they are hardly as vicious as one might have the impression of from seeing demonstrations escalate through mass-media. On the contrary, they’re almost friendly. When fellow Okinawans drive past to their jobs or errands at the base, protesters stand by the road with a “No Base” or “No Osprey” sign held in one hand while waving friendly with the other. Yet another example of balance I thought. As if friendly waving wasn’t enough, I could also observe frequent bowing which is a custom in Japan coupled with casual greetings. However, when a military jeep drove by full of marines it was a very different story. Nevertheless, Okinawans have always been known as a peaceful people, and from what I saw during my stay I found no reason to think differently. And overall, I would strongly recommend anyone who plans a stay in Japan to spare a few days and spend them with these amazing people for a purpose far greater than just travelling.
Things I heard
Although I can’t confirm the accuracy of this information, one of the most shocking things I heard about during my stay was how there’s been cases where an attack helicopter hovers in low altitude while aiming its guns (although not loaded) at civilian buildings, yes, where people live. As regards safety, apart from the crash danger (which can be argued to be bad enough), such a situation is not immediately dangerous seeing as the guns are not loaded. However, in terms of ethics this is just plain low. After all, how would you feel if you stepped out on the balcony seeking the source of the sudden noise and found an attack helicopter hovering right above with its guns pointed at your house, at your family? After all, how can you know for sure that those horrid guns are not loaded? This anecdote left a profound mark on my perception of human rights and human worth.
Among other things I learned of was the severity of the survival exercises the marines undergo in the jungle training grounds of Yambaru. I was told that the marines are sent out into the jungle for a week or more with very little supplies which to sustain themselves. This with the presumption that whatever they can dig up of roots and plants ought to suffice. Seeing as the training grounds consist mainly of thick, nearly impenetrable jungle, there has up to date been no attempts to set up fences to limit the area of the survival exercises. As a consequence, Takae residents report of how towards the end of these exercises U.S marines may suddenly pop out of the jungle into the very backyard of the residents, begging for food and water. Although I feel strongly with the hardships the marines must endure, allowing for these kinds of situations to occur, and keep occurring is completely irresponsible and careless behavior on the officers’ part. After all, it can’t be all that pleasant to have a platoon of marines barge unannounced into your backyard carrying automatic rifles.