The stunning beauty of Aharen beach on Tokashiki Island in Okinawa, Japan. Photo: iStock
The stunning beauty of Aharen beach on Tokashiki Island in Okinawa, Japan. Photo: iStock

Okinawa and its wider Ryukyu island chain boast a biodiversity rivaling that of the famed Galapagos Islands. There are mountain tops sheltering rare birds and evergreen jungles, along with winding rivers and mangrove forests.

Stunning white sand beaches lead to crystal blue seas, which are decorated with coral communities and riddled with underwater limestone caves.

Revered by locals and biologists, this interconnected ecosystem is key to attracting tourists, who flock to Japan’s playground islands. But this natural magnificence is now under threat.

The list of environmental degradations is long, challenging and depressing. It includes critically threatened species; toxic dumping; soil erosion; groundwater depletion; and marine microplastic pollution.

And there is no easy solution because the causes are multiple. United States base pollution, intrusive tourism and global ecological issues are all contributing to an ongoing disaster.

Base relocation threatens sea life

Environmental degradation has been the key reason Okinawans have protested the relocation of the US Futenma military facility to Oura Bay, Henoko, on the east coast of northern Okinawa.

The relocation plan includes the pouring of 21 million metric tons of sand and soil for land reclamation. This was a major point of contention in the run-up to the islands’ prefectural elections, which have been moved to Sept. 30  rather than their original Nov. 18 date, following anti-base Governor Takeshi Onaga’s sudden passing in August.

Prior to his death, the governor instituted procedures to withdraw the facility’s license on July 27, stating: “Facts that were not known when the permit for land reclamation was given have come to light, and the appropriate conditions in terms of land usage are no longer being met.”

His moves were a response to alarm bells sounding from all directions.

The prefecture’s own environmental impact assessment lists never ending problems. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is warning of alien species invasion while seismologists fear the impact on unstable earthquake fault lines.

Political scientists reveal nuclear weapons may be stored in the new Ammunition Depot. Environmental experts are horrified by the crushing of corals and the destruction of a biodiversity hotspot.  Conservationists also decry the loss of newly discovered crustacean species and the danger posed to the already critically endangered dugong.

It was the likely fate of this marine mammal, whose sea-grass feeding grounds would be buried under concrete, that provoked the late governor’s court battle against the US Department of Defense, citing the animal’s protection in the US.

It may be too late. Effects of the seawall construction, which began in 2015, have appeared – dugong have not been seen in the waters since. “My breath stopped,” said Taro Hosokawa of the Dugong Network Okinawa.

Adding to the waters’ woes is the invasion of crown-of-thorns starfish, which are depleting fisheries.

Jungle training kills jungle

Nature conservation on the islands also clashes with Tokyo’s foreign policy. The Yanbaru subtropical forests, considered a Japanese national treasure, were unable to claim UNESCO World Natural Heritage status due to their hosting of a US Jungle Warfare Training area.

The area’s expansion in 2016, with six new helipads, led to deforestation of 24,000 trees and endangerment of 11 unique species. Protests against this facility’s expansion won widespread coverage after the mainland deployed riot police.

Increasing deforestation has led to increasing urbanization and to locals farming on hillsides, due to flat land being monopolized by bases. Severe soil erosion has followed with crop growth affected by land salinization.

Toxic spillage

But the greatest dangers posed by the bases are toxic spills affecting local health and wildlife – they number over 415 since 1998.  British investigative journalist Jon Mitchell has led efforts exposing the burial on the island of over 100 barrels of Vietnam War-era Agent Orange, a defoliant containing dioxins that have been linked to cancers and birth defects.

Fluids have leaked under a children’s soccer field and into nearby waters – now contaminated with dioxins 83 and 21,000 times higher than safe levels.

The leakage of arsenic and lead into the environment has even led to the process of land return being delayed with species such as mongooses and habu snakes near Camp Kinser found to have “high levels” of banned chemicals.

The governmental Okinawa Defense Bureau has just ended a heavily criticized investigation which revealed what was already common knowledge: That drinking water from a purification plant near Kadena Air Base is polluted. But investigators were unable to inspect where related chemicals came from as the base denied access.

However, it has already been revealed that during the past 20 years 21,000 liters of JET-X 2.75 (a hazardous fire extinguishing foam containing carcinogens) seeped from the facility. Moreover, 13,000 liters of diesel fuel and 480,000 liters of sewage have leaked into the Tengan, Shirahi and Hija rivers. The Hija provides drinking water for six municipalities.

Most spills have not been investigated officially by Tokyo or the prefecture, despite repeated calls from the Okinawan parliament, due to the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which prevents Japanese oversight of American military facilities.

Unsustainable tourism

US bases are not the only issue as Okinawa has become a hotspot for Asian tourists. It beat Hawaii in arrival numbers in February 2018 and its beaches claim the top five spots in Japan on TripAdvisor. But as with other Asian resorts such as Boracay and Bali, there are growing concerns that tourism is destroying the very environment to which tourists are lured.

A June survey completed by Ishigaki City residents revealed 70.1% worry about the environment and have called for conservation. The growing tourist population has led to land overdevelopment from hotels along the beaches, causing coastal erosion and red soil outflow into the sea. This, in turn, has suffocated coral and other species by depleting oxygen and blocking the sun.

More bad news: large numbers of people wearing oxybenzone sunscreen, now banned in Hawaii, are entering the ocean. As a result, there has been poisoning and stress of coral and marine animals.

Yet another by-product of tourism is huge amounts of litter and vast amounts of food from hotel restaurants being thrown away. This is causing a landfill problem, prefecture-wide.

Water shortage

With the average tourist using 2-10 times the amount of drinking water used by locals, a water shortage has led to the damming of more rivers, leading to the drying up of wetlands and reduction of water supply to natural ecosystems.

“According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 4th report, islands such as Okinawa are at extreme risk of climate change,” stated the Faculty of Agriculture of University of Ryukyus. “We need groundwater which can be supplied stably as a water resource.”

Subsurface dams, such Fukuzato, have begun to secure groundwater runoff, with the potential of saving 1,000 tons a day. However, this can affect surrounding ecosystems and water quality: Nitrate nitrogen from insecticides used in agriculture may seep into the water, causing contamination.

Plastic, plastic everywhere

The sea in which the Ryukyu Islands sit is facing a different type of contamination. On Zamami Island, plastic is accumulating in the sand, the deep sea and is beginning to run through the marine food chain by embedding itself in animal tissues.

Irish National University and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have begun to study the specific adverse effects that the ingestion of 0.002mm to 0.008mm of plastics containing toxic additives is having on organisms which are later eaten by humans or used for bait.

It is hoped that more concrete solutions than school nature excursions to deal with the imposing raft of problems facing the Ryukyus will materialize. If not, the outlook is grim indeed.

“Overall, Okinawa’s environmental problems are significant,” said Jonathan Taylor, professor of Geography and Environment at California State University. “All of its terrestrial and aquatic environments are endangered – some catastrophically so.”