HIGASHI, Okinawa Prefecture--As roaring tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft fly nearby, a battle of attrition continues on the ground.
The belligerents are demonstrators opposing the construction of U.S. military helipads on one side and, on the other, riot police.
“Excessive policing,” is how Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga has described the mobilization of hundreds of riot police, who have been flown in from around the nation to deal with the protesters.
The prefectural police dispute Onaga's accusation, saying the police are acting in the “appropriate line of duty.”
The daily clashes began July 22 when the central government resumed building the remaining four helipads in this village by forcibly removing protesters who were staging sit-ins.
“The removal of people by riot police has been violent,” said Shun Medoruma, 55, one of the protesters and an award-winning novelist from a local community. “If you offer even the slightest resistance, they will twist your joints.”
About 50 demonstrators had a showdown with hundreds of riot police at the N1 gate, which leads to the construction site, on Aug. 24.
As trucks carrying construction materials approached the gate led by police cars, protesters shouted things such as “Go home!” and “Stop the construction!”
Riot police immediately halted the protesters when they tried to block the trucks, resulting in angry cries and screams.
A woman in her 70s was rushed to a hospital by an ambulance when she fell and hit her head during the protest.
The controversial helipad project began in 2007.
The United States had agreed to return half of the land of Camp Gonsalves, the 7,800-hectare U.S. Marine Corps jungle warfare training area straddling Higashi and neighboring Kunigami village.
But one condition of the agreement was that six helipads would be built in the vicinity of Takae, a settlement in Higashi, to replace those in the area to be returned to Japan.
Two helipads had been completed by 2014 and began being used by U.S. Marines the following year.
But the project to build the remaining four was suspended due to a barricade of vehicles demonstrators set up to prevent construction vehicles from reaching the site.
The governor supports the return of the land of the training area, but he blasted the actions of the riot police at an Aug. 25 news conference.
“There is no question that it is excessive policing,” Onaga said. “The situation is a far cry from what the central government’s pledge to try to understand islanders’ thoughts and fully debate the U.S. base issue with them.”
The prefectural police insisted that riot police officers simply “relocated people who would be endangered by the traffic on a road to a safer place.”
The helipad project has also exposed a problem that was not addressed initially: the noise resulting from the Osprey aircraft.
It was only after the helipad construction got under way when the prefectural government was informed that Osprey would be using the helipads.
The noise of the aircraft repeating landing exercises reached a level of about 100 decibels at a house about 500 meters away from the helipads, according to Takeshi Tokashiki, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of the Ryukyus in the prefecture.
The noise level is comparable to the sound heard under the tracks when a train passes.
The noise became louder in June, when intensive training involving the Ospreys took place.
It reached 99.3 decibels at 10:08 p.m. on June 20.
That day, an average of 80.9 decibels of noise continued for an hour.
On June 21, 96.8 decibels was logged at 8:51 p.m. while an average of 79 decibels was recorded for two hours and 20 minutes.
On June 23, when the prefecture observed the anniversary of the end of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, the noise was at 93.4 decibels at 4:58 p.m.
Tokashiki said more extensive surveys were needed to gauge the physical and mental impact resulting from the noise of the Ospreys on residents.
“Osprey and helicopters cause residents a big burden as they practice swing motions repeatedly,” he said.
He also said Ospreys create more low-frequency sound waves than helicopters, the effect of which has yet to be studied.
Rie Ishihara, a resident of the Takae district, complained about the roar and low-frequency sound of Ospreys that fly very low over her house.
“I hear the huge noise of Ospreys after plates clatter first,” said Ishihara, 52. “I also find low-frequency sounds sickening. I suffer from a headache for about an hour after the Osprey has finally gone.”
The Defense Ministry, which is in charge of the helipad project, did not conduct environmental impact assessments of the helipads.
Under the prefectural ordinance, the assessment is required for a heliport project, but not helipads.
The prefectural government has called for a fresh assessment based on the use of helipads by Ospreys, but the ministry refused.
(This article was written by Takufumi Yoshida and senior staff writer Takao Nogami.)