Atoms for Peace is Dead – Reexamining Okinawan Contemporary History Through Post-311 Fukushima

from Japan – Fissures in the Planetary Apparatus

Atoms for Peace is Dead – Reexamining Okinawan Contemporary History Through Post-311 Fukushima

Chiyo Wakabayashi

Given that it is over a thousand kilometers distance from Fukushima Daiichi, the society of Okinawa at the moment does not appear to suffer much effect from the nuclear accident. Even though a small amount of radioactive substances must be flying over through the sky, the islands of Okinawa are excluded from the “nuclear plant map” of Japan, repeatedly broadcasted on TV, since the prefecture does not host any nuclear plants. The absence on the map might have given an impression to the rest of the nation that Okinawa is the only safe zone, free of radiation in the country. At the same time, due to the fact that we see almost no changes in the routine lifelines or on a material basis, it is undeniable that Okinawans tend to resonate and internalize such images of their home unconsciously.

We ought to be cautious, however, of this uncanny sense of peacefulness. Day by day I find it crucial that we delve into our imagination to further examine this matter.

Nuclear energy is part of the development of nuclear technology, which originated in the development of military technology in the mid-20th century. As revealed in the course of the current disaster, the exclusiveness of electric companies, atomic industries and the national policy on nuclear energy entails characteristics of having been “established by the political force without waiting for a technical maturity,” and having “always carried militaristically touchy elements within”[2] So it is that, even if Okinawa does not suffer direct damage from the Fukushima disaster, it is inseparable from the problems that have arisen from 3/11, and it should not be exempt from our attention in that regard.

It is important to acknowledge that nuclear issues exist at the core of the problematic of Okinawan contemporary history, and therefore it is crucial to reexamine it through the experience of 3/11 and Fukushima as a moment. That is to say, thinking through the unbearable anxiety shared among the people in the disaster-stricken area, their distrust towards the state, capital and science, and their cries from the threat forced upon their lives is indispensable for strengthening and deepening our recognition of recent history, and drawing a longer line of temporality from the past to the future. It is necessary that we stay sensible and conscious of the common horizon of recognition.


Since the 1950s US military bases in Okinawa have been deemed A-bomb bases, as US presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon publicly called them. They have held nuclear-armed missiles such as Nike Hercules, and hosted nuclear marine propulsions for a call at a port, causing the problems of radioactive cobalt-60 (i.e., the exposure of base workers to radiation, as Kenzaburo Oe reported in his well-known reportage Okinawa Notes, published in 1970). Meanwhile, as the secret agreement on Okinawa Reversion has been gradually revealed, suspicion persists in nuclear weapons having been carried on and stored in the bases even after 1972, the year of reversion. Furthermore, after the recent incident of a US Marine helicopter crash at the Okinawa International University in 2004, a radioactive material–strontium-90–was detected at the site on the campus[3].

Such rapports of nuclear weapons’ presence with military bases have had a great impact on Okinawa in various contexts: its history, politics, society and culture. If I mention but an example of the US oppression on local residents during the 1950s, it is the first Ryukyu University Incident in 1953, that was triggered by a photo  exhibition entitled “Atomic Bomb Exhibition,” organized by a group of students, who had been shocked by a magazine article on the atomic bomb victims from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They organized it without a permit from the US military government and were later indicted[4]. While media censorship on A-bomb damages had already been called off on mainland Japan, Okinawans still had to mute their voices and opinions regarding the issue. This epitomized the primal position of Okinawa during the US military occupation that separated Okinawa from Japan under Article 3 of the Treaty of Peace with Japan. (The treaty was concluded in 1951, but this merely embodied a transformation of the wartime occupation into permanent military control.) During the same period when the strategy of mass retaliation, namely, Eisenhower’s “New Look” developed its dependence on nuclear weapons, what the US mostly feared was that Okinawans could take Hiroshima and Nagasaki incidents as their own issue, instead of distant events, and thereby pay attention to the problems of their islands under US “exclusive rule,” and develop criticisms against it upon realizing the present social contradiction that military presence is deeply embedded in their livelihood.
Around the same time on mainland Japan, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident caused by the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll brought strong opposition against nuclear weapons as well as US military strategy. Unlike in Okinawa under US military rule, on mainland Japan the people were able to organize nuclear disarmament movements on a grassroots level and extensively linked the movements for the First World Conference against Nuclear and Hydrogen Bombs, held in Hiroshima in 1955. However, the social movement was weakened thereafter during the course of clearing Japan’s “nuke allergy” by way of introducing a “Faustian contract” (Peter Kuznik) on the peaceful use of atomic energy, namely, Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” doctrine[5]. Okinawa’s difference from Japan is equal to the difference between Article 3 of Treaty of Peace with Japan and the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. That is to say, the southern islands were kept in a “stateless” status under US exclusive rule — instead of being ruled by the UN acknowledged trusteeship of the US — under the bizarre international law. At the same time, it is a reflection of the Janus–faced characteristics of US nuclear strategy: mass-retaliation by nuclear weapons and “Atoms for Peace.” It was half a century later that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident revealed the true substance of the matter by having blown one of these two heads away.

As is widely known by now, the main concern for the US during the process of Okinawa Reversion was to maintain the free use of the military bases, and ultimately the operation of nuclear bases. This is the core of the vital importance the US has sought in Okinawa since around 1950, as insisted by the so-called Ryukyu Working Group consisting of the Department of State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense, while it was considering a concrete negotiation for the Reversion of Okinawa.

‘Vital’ is a more essential and active word than ‘Keystone’ that the US used to describe Okinawa military bases. ‘Keystone,’ implying a stationary architectural structure, is used to describe a support for the body of US military strategy. On the other hand, ‘vital’ comes from a Latin word vita or vitalis, an adjective used for life-forms. The expression to describe Okinawa as ‘vital’ is often seen in US official archives, first of which was Douglass McArthur’s speech in March 1948. At the meeting with George F. Kennan, then-Director of Policy Planning at the Dept. of State, McArthur stated that “Okinawa has vital importance” and if enough “air power” is deployed there, the US will be able to defend not only the Japanese archipelago but also Northeast to Southeast Asia as well as the entire western Pacific[6]. Although McArthur did not mention the term nuclear weapons then, his emphasis on “air power” meant that in the context of post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.

Following the success of Russia’s 1949 atomic bomb test, the outbreak of the Korean War led the US to start installing nuclear weapons on overseas bases in and around Europe. Furthermore in the 1950s, following again the success of the Russian hydrogen bomb test, the US began nuclear deployment in Asia during the time of tension between mainland China and Taiwan over the crisis of the Taiwan Straits. By the time Eisenhower was leaving the government at the end of the 50s, US bases in Guam, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Okinawa hosted approximately 1,700 on-the-ground nuclear weapons, almost half of which (approx. 800) belonged to Kadena Air Force Base where the bombers under Strategic Air Command (SAC) were stationed. Curtis LeMay, the chief of USAF and SAC and also the planner of the WWII bombing strategy against Japan, including the Tokyo Air Raid, had great confidence in delivering nuclear weapons to oversea bases as well as tactics of using them.

It was around the time of the Korean War that McArthur’s view of Okinawa’s vital importance attained a realistic ground vis-à-vis nuclear weapons. In early March 1951, McArthur requested the Truman administration order an attack with nuclear weapons on North Korea and its areas bordering with China. As of the end of March, the lieutenant general George Stratemeyer of USAF announced that the nuclear facility in Kadena Air Base was ready for actual operation, in other words, except for nuclear capsules, the main construction of atomic bombs had been completed by then. In early April, Truman fired McArthur; it is said that his insistence on the nuclear attack was the reason for his dismissal. However, six months later, USAF performed a simulation A-bombing on North Korea named “Operation Hudson Harbor,” launching B-29 from Kadena Air Base to drop a mock A-bomb filled with TNT gunpowder[7].

Thereafter in the 60s especially during the Vietnam War, it was said that the US performed atomic bombing drills, and as mentioned by the farmer Shoko Ahagon who fought the land struggle against compulsory expropriation by the US Forces in Ie-jima Island, such drilling was performed over and over again in the US rifle training center in Maja-village, built on land forcibly taken from the locals. And this drilling triggered the local residents to develop further oppositional consciousness for their anti-US base movement. Later Ahagon walked into the mock atomic bombing site and collected remains of the bombshells, which are now displayed at the Nuchidutakara [life is treasure] Anti-war Museum in Ie-jima Island[8].

Fundamentally, the basis of all land struggles in occupied Okinawa, including the dispute of Ie-jima in particular, has been non-violent direct action, civil disobedience by the residents. They have always fought “not to let them use their land for killing,” criticizing the pro-military policy and calling to bring back the land for life and productions. While the US forces are composed as a giant military machine that possesses highly destructive murderous weapons such as thermo-nuclear bombs, the people of Okinawa have always fought bare-handed against it, as they often call it. Although Raymond Williams said: “military technologies are an important element of structuring social order,” the social order in Okinawa under US occupation was embodied by the distance between nuclear weaponry and hoes and sickles.[9] Many of those whose land was taken by the military sought to make a living by taking jobs at the bases, calling them “military labor,” but such jobs only gave hoes and sickles to the people to pick up rocks and dig unused bombs out, in providing the labor to construct facilities and runways — the state-of-the-art weaponry.
The vital importance of Okinawa for US forces was also carved into the livelihood of Okinawans, in other words, the maintenance of their financial stability, labor and land. In addition, out of numerous American corporations that were involved in building Okinawa military bases, included were the contractors for construction of domestic nuclear facilities since the Manhattan Project.

In the numerous Okinawan post-war testimonies, the name “AJ Company” is often mentioned by the people reminiscing about their military labor. The base construction in Okinawa began with a joint venture of Guy F. Atkinson Company and J. A. Jones that exclusively contracted the projects from the US military. Founded in 1910, the Atkinson Company grew rapidly during their contract for a nuclear production facility in Hanford, WA. The Hanford nuclear facility had produced Plutonium, which was used for Trinity, the first test of the Manhattan Project, as well as for the A-bomb “Fat Man” dropped in Nagasaki. Jones Company had participated in construction of the nuclear research facility in Oakridge TN. The merged company of Atkinson and Jones was not only contracted for Okinawa bases but also by General Electric when it replaced Dupont for a plutonium facility in Hanford. Another contractor for Hanford, Morrison-Knudsen Co. also participated in Okinawa base construction[10].

To date no exact official document has been found  concerning the involvement of the above US contractors in the construction of nuclear facilities in Okinawa, aside from the projects in Hanford or Oakridge. However, the US military had already been nuclear-armed at the time of the Okinawan constructions, and at the time of the negotiation for the Reversion of Okinawa, the US assigned Kadena and Henoko stations as their nuclear storage facilities. The establishment of the extremely controlled society (aka. plutonium economy) forced almost 1,500 households to move out of the Hanford vicinity, for the realization of Manhattan Project and later for the production of plutonium, the ultimate nuclear substance, all of which were planned and pursued by the US Army Engineering Corps. Similarly in Okinawa, for the vital importance of the bases, the Army Engineering Corps forced many civilians to move off of their land and work for the US contractors of aforementioned history.


Shortly after the 3/11 earthquake, NHK Okinawa repeatedly reported that the US military had announced that the Marines were ready to be dispatched to the affected area for disaster rescue, just awaiting for a request from the Japanese government. Under the name of “Operation Tomodachi [friendship],” the US Forces with Marines began sending a nuclear aircraft carrier to the coast of Fukushima. The garish impression the operation gave to the public, blended later with another garishness: the killing of Osama Bin Ladin, performed as if a public execution. Together they seem to have impressed the Okinawan public with a sign of US decline, rather than a fear of its magnitude of power.

Many Okinawans are aware that Operation Tomodachi is more a deception staged for the benefit of the US government and Japan-US alliance than a genuine project for humanitarian aid. It is also thought to be an excuse for the US military to legitimately gain access to public airports and air facilities for their military use. But it makes us question more fundamental characteristics of the military itself: i.e., as epitomized in Eisenhower’s Janus-faced nuclear strategy, it is difficult to believe that their basis of humanitarian aid comes from ‘good will’, while they unfold indiscriminate massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan, and commit crimes on a daily basis in Okinawa. Not to mention that Kevin Maher, who branded Okinawans as “stupid” when he was the US consul general of Okinawa, took charge in mediation for the operation. (Then, in May, he turned to be a business consultant in a company, working for nuclear fuel recycling industries, in which Richard Lawless, the former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Bush administration, is one of the executives.)

The situation does not seem unproblematic at all. Since the 2000s, Lieutenant General Wallace C. Gregson and the Okinawa Marine Corps deputy assistant chief of staff Robert D. Eldridge have been aiming to “strengthen the Japan-US partnership and develop a maritime base jointly for US and Japanese forces to support humanitarian aid and rescue work,” at the same time as constantly placing emphasis on “humanitarian aid” and “disaster relief” in the magazine issued by the Marines in Okinawa[11]. Furthermore, at the Okinawa Policy Council’s Subcommittee on Burden Reduction, meeting shortly after 3/11, the Defense minister of Japan Toshimi Kitazawa proposed use of the airports in Miyako and Shimoji Islands as “international base stations in case of a large scale disaster emergency.” Although the Ministry of Defense insists that Kitazawa’s statement was solely a response to the proposal of Okinawa Prefecture for its role for “International contribution by the establishment of disaster relief base in Asia-Pacific region,” the US-Japan alliance seems to take advantage of the confusion at the scene of fire, a move to which we need pay attention, as it is veiled under the seemingly contradictory plans for the base relocation: unifying Kadena and securing Henoko[12].

Ever since 3/11, the contemporary history of Okinawa has been at a crucial turning point. As the struggles against building new Marine air stations and bases in Henoko and Takae continue, this past April 2011, on their visit to Okinawa for inspection of Futenma Relocation issues, the United States House Committee on Armed Services was met by more than 22,000 plaintiffs of the third Kadena Noise Pollution case. Kadena Air Base has been a symbolic element of vital importance of Okinawa bases. In addition, in synchronicity with Kadena plaintiffs, the landowners of Camp Schwab in Henoko that has been said to have nuclear storage and of Camp Hansen that hosts a simulation facility for contra-guerilla urban warfare, are raising their voices against renewal of the land contract. These are, as it were, Okinawans’ time-lagged response, their rejection against the terms: “return to Henoko” and “deterrent” used in the campaign for the military realignment during the Hatoyama administration. At the same time, I have to stress, an optimism in action observed in the people’s movements intervening in the history of militarization is the very element that has been moving forward the contemporary history of nuclear-burdened Okinawa.

On May 7th 2011, in a Ustream live broadcast from the massive anti-nuke demonstration in Shibuya Tokyo, we saw young people scream: “We don’t need nuke plants,” “Save children,” “Right to live, No to profit,” along with a sound system truck that hung a banner in big letters, “’Atoms for Peace’ is Dead.” All these seem to tell us that at the moment the people in Japan are facing crisis and fissures of their history, in which they are struggling to find a new identity and common consciousness of the world. The Japanese people, who have long identified themselves with a pessimism of the world internalized in the state policy and covered themselves with a cynicism, are about to experience changes confronting the abyss of the history. Okinawa too ought to see and ascertain the changes as such. Let us all go forward together for “’Atoms for Peace’ is Dead” and beyond.


[1] This article was originally published in Impaction, No. 180.

[2] 高木仁三郎『市民科学者として生きる』(岩波書店、1999年)88ページ。

[3]See 黒澤亜利子編『沖国大がアメリカに占領された日—8・13米軍ヘリ墜落事件から見えてきた沖縄/日本の縮図—』(青土社、2005年)。 Concerning the effects of strontium-90, the Kyoto University professor Hideaki Koide has detailed a number of times.

[4]On this incident, see琉球大学教授職員会・大学人九条の会沖縄編『琉大事件とは何だったのか』(高良鉄美/琉球大学大学院法務研究科、2010年)を参照(県外の一般書 店では入手困難。インターネット書店では、Books Mangrooveで取扱。[])。

[5] Peter Kuznick, “Japan’s Nuclear History in Perspective: Eisenhower and Atoms for War and Peace,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: Web Edition, 13 April 2011. [].

The problematic consciousness about the historical process through which nuclear power was introduced to Japan’s civil society is now shared within the de-nuke movement as the origin of 3/11 by way of historical investigations and documentaries.

See Yoshihiko Ikegami, “Introducing Postwar History in the Nuclear Accident Debate,” Japan: Fissures in Planetary Apparatus, 7 May 2011 [])、And Peace Philosophy Center Blog, 14 May 2011([].

[6] “Conversation between General of the Army MacArthur and Mr. George F. Kennan,” 5 March 1948, FRUS, 1948, VI, pp.699 – 702; “Conversation between General of the Army MacArthur, Under Secretary of the Army Draper, and Mr. George Kennan,” 21 March 1948, ibid., pp. 709 – 710.
Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin and William Burr, “Where They Were,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November/December 1999, pp.26 – 35.

[7] Bruce Cumings, “Spring Thaw for Korea?,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 1992, pp.14 – 23.


[9] Raymond Williams, “The Politics of Nuclear Disarmament,” in E. P. Thompson, ed., Exterminism and Cold War (London: Verso, 1982).

[10] 『沖縄文化研究』(法政大学沖縄文化研究所、第29号、2003年)所収の拙稿「ジープと砂塵」等を参照。Also see: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July 1948, ”Atomic Energy 1948: A Business Week Report”.

[11] Concerning Gregson et al, see a journal supported by the Ministry of Defense,『Securitarian』557〜559号(防衛弘済会、2005年)

In 2004, Eldridge commented on the deployment of the US Marine Corps in 『沖縄タイムス』, in which he stresses a must to appreciate the efforts of the US Forces stationed in Okinawa as well as the significance of military capabilities for the success of disaster rescue.

「米海兵隊の支援活動に対してフィリピンの被害者をはじめ同政府の反応は大変感動的で、感謝ばかりである。(中略)沖縄ではフィリピンの被害者への 同情があれば、フィリピンでの苦痛を救済するための在沖米軍の努力を支持すべきである。それ以下は、すでに正当性を失った「一国平和主義」の延長にすぎな い。少なくとも「軍事利用」の定義が広すぎ、常識からすれば軍による人道支援活動はその解釈内に入らない。この規模の震災・人道支援活動を成功するのに は、海兵隊のような軍という組織しか、能力(訓練、経験、指揮統制、物資、運搬)とその好意を持っていない。」(『沖縄タイムス』2004年12月19 日)

In passing, before he joined the Marines in Okinawa, Eldridge was a scholar of international politics; in Kobe University he studied with Makoto Iokibe, the president of National Defense Academy of Japan and the chairman of the Recovery Committee of the Great Disaster of Eastern Japan.

[12] 『琉球新報』2011年5月24日。

One Comment on “Atoms for Peace is Dead – Reexamining Okinawan Contemporary History Through Post-311 Fukushima”

  1. Bystander says:

    I had wondered if Okinawa’s importance to Operation Tomodachi had changed the impression of American military presence to Okinawans. After all, using military forces to provide relief and humanitarian aid is a very common practice by nations all across the world. Surely Okinawans would be aware of this fact.

    The fact this blog entry continued to demonize Americans as imperialist war-mongering monsters, dismissing Operation Tomodachi as “a fake garish display” and equating it to killing Osama Bin-Laden (do Okinawans consider him a hero?), is disheartening proof that it hadn’t.

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