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Number 1 Shimbun

Behind the Wire



Digging deeper. U.S. Marines unearth barrels of suspected Agent Orange at
MCAS Futenma in the early 1980s.


The challenges of reporting military contamination

on Okinawa are being overcome with

collaboration, new technology and

determined investigators.

by Jon Mitchell



ilitary installations are dirty places.

In the U.S. alone, there are almost 40,000 sites polluted by the Pentagon – more than 140 of which are so contaminated they have been placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list of areas in need of federal remediation. Military pollutants include depleted uranium, chemical weapon waste, trichloroethylene, PCBs and pesticides. At USMC Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for example, between 1953 and 1987 water contamination exposed hundreds of thousands of troops and their families to industrial solvents and other chemicals – forcing the government to enact special legislation in 2012 to aid survivors.

Given the extent of military contamination and its damage to human health, there is a compelling public duty for journalists to report the problem. However a number of challenges stand in our way. The Pentagon, citing national security concerns, can block the release of environmental surveys, and barbed wire and armed guards impede access to contaminated sites. Moreover, many service members with inside knowledge of pollution are afraid of speaking to the press for fear of reprisals.


The Pentagon,

citing national security concerns,

can block the release

of environmental surveys


Such obstacles to reporting are exacerbated in Japan. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) absolves the U.S. military from all responsibility to clean up its bases, so Japan’s tax payers fund 100 percent of remediation costs following the return of base land to civilian usage. Furthermore, the U.S. military is not required to grant local officials access to installations even when the safety of civilian neighbors is at risk. In August 2013, for example, after a USAF helicopter crashed near a dam providing water to the local Okinawan community, USFJ denied prefectural government officials entry to the site.


As the host of more than 30 U.S. military bases, Okinawa bears the burden of the Pentagon’s presence in Japan. It also suffers from the pollution. When the whole island was under U.S. jurisdiction between 1945 and 1972, it was the storage site of approximately 1200 nuclear warheads and 13,000 tons of chemical weapons.

Yet, to date, the Pentagon has never conducted comprehensive environmental surveys of its bases on Okinawa; often the true extent of military contamination only becomes apparent after the return of land. Examples include Onna village, where high levels of mercury and PCBs hindered plans to redevelop military land returned in 1995, and Chatan town, which had to postpone a road-widening project last year because of dangerous levels of lead found on former USFJ property.

More than 250 U.S. veterans are suffering

from illnesses they believe

are caused by their exposure

to Agent Orange


For the past four years, I’ve been investigating U.S. military contamination on Okinawa and its risks to local residents, service members and their dependants. In 2012, Defoliated Island, a TV documentary based upon my work won an award for excellence from Japan’s Association of Commercial Broadcasters and this month will see the publication of my Japanese-language book – Chasing Agent Orange on Okinawa.

Although Washington denies it stored Agent Orange on Okinawa during the Vietnam War, more than 250 U.S. veterans are suffering from illnesses they believe are caused by their exposure to it. They claim to have transported, stored, sprayed and, in some cases, buried Agent Orange on Okinawa. They have photos of barrels of defoliants on the island and even the U.S. military cites a stockpile of 25,000 barrels on Okinawa prior to 1972.

As an environmental contaminant, what makes Agent Orange particularly worrisome is its persistence. In South Vietnam, there are still around 30 dioxin hot-spots on land formerly used by the U.S. military during the war; the Vietnamese Red Cross estimates the number of people sick from exposure exceeds 3 million.


As well as unearthing the secret history of Agent Orange on Okinawa, the book explores ways new technology can be harnessed for collaborative investigative journalism at a time when newsrooms have slashed their budgets for such reporting. During the past four years, a diverse group of people – military whistleblowers, former C.I.A. staff, veterans and environmental scientists – have pooled their skills to surmount the barriers to access on Okinawa erected by the Pentagon. Okinawan journalists have played especially decisive roles in this collaborative process. The island has a strong history of investigative journalism and reporters have often won national prizes for their work; in particular, Natsuko Shimabukuro, the Ryukyu Asahi Broadcasting director of Defoliated Island, contributed vital knowledge, energy and connections to the hunt.


The nerve gas dumped almost half a century ago

poses a very real risk

to coastal communities

on the island today


One illustration of how this collaborative approach bore fruit was the investigation into a leak of nerve agent that occurred at Chibana Ammunition Depot in 1969. By bringing together U.S. veterans, Okinawan journalists and archive reports, it was possible to triangulate a previously unreported dump of tons of sarin gas in Okinawa’s seas. At the time, such disposal was standard operating procedure for the U.S. military – but it had never admitted to the practice on Okinawa. According to chemical weapons experts, the nerve gas dumped almost half a century ago poses a very real risk to coastal communities on the island today.

With a majority of Okinawans opposed to the large number of bases on their island, the Pentagon seems determined not to give residents more reason to resent its presence – and it has mobilized its PR machine to rebut my research. In February 2013, it released a nine-month-in-the making counter-report on my coverage that concluded there was no proof Agent Orange was ever stored on the island. The report failed to note that the author hadn’t bothered to visit Okinawa or interview any of the veterans alleging exposure – nor did the report mention that his previous research had received funding from the manufacturers of Agent Orange.


The report’s conclusion was predictable. The U.S. military has had more than half a century of practice in obfuscating about Agent Orange; in the 1970s when U.S. Vietnam War veterans first started developing symptoms of defoliant-related illnesses, the government accused them of suffering from drug addiction or sexually-transmitted diseases. It still refuses to help the millions of dioxin-poisoned Vietnamese survivors. However what surprised me more than the Pentagon’s response was the reaction of some elected officials on Okinawa who declined to support health surveys of former base workers and displayed reluctance to act on veterans’ accounts of a large cache of defoliants buried beneath Chatan Town.

With officials unwilling to take action, the task has been taken up by civic groups – in particular, the Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa.

“Okinawa Prefecture has not been addressing contamination issues seriously,” says Dr. Masami Kawamura, director of the network. “It always looks to the Japanese government – not to Okinawan people – which means they are unwilling to play a role in overseeing Tokyo’s policy.”

A system to review and oversee the process of the government’s investigation and remediation needs to be established,” says Kawamura. “And through studying their actions, we should raise Okinawan people’s consciousness of contamination issues with the goal of building the capacity for clean-up.”

In the U.S., too, there appears to be growing awareness of the poisonous legacy on Okinawa. In August, the Congressional Research Service cited an article I’d originally written for the Japan Times featuring whistleblown military documents that suggested officials had hidden massive PCB contamination at Kadena Air Base in the 1980s. Also, despite the Pentagon’s counter-report, one seriously ill U.S. veteran was able to win his claim in October 2013 for exposure to Agent Orange on Okinawa by citing military documents discovered by myself and fellow researchers – and that case looks likely to open the floodgates for further wins.


Meanwhile, last year Washington and Tokyo announced that they would consider amending SOFA to allow more access for civilian authorities to survey U.S. bases prior to their return; the latest in the ongoing series of talks was held in September.

With concerns about military contamination so high, on Nov. 1 and 2 an international symposium titled “Agent Orange and the Politics of Poisons” will be held at Okinawa Christian University. Gathering experts from Canada, Vietnam, the U.S. and Japan – as well as survivors of military contamination – the symposium is the first of its kind to be held on Okinawa.

Okinawan people absolutely have a right to know where Agent Orange and similar pollutants were buried on their land,” says Dr. Daniel Broudy, chair of the symposium’s organizing committee. “The symposium will draw attention to the reasons why, under the present SOFA, the people of the prefecture are dealing with the ongoing defilement of their land and water. We would ultimately like to create an ongoing public dialogue about military contamination . . . so the U.S. government will no longer be able to ignore the just demands of people living here.”


Journalists have a responsibility

to force transparency from both the Japanese

and U.S. authorities


In the coming years, a number of U.S. bases on Okinawa are slated for closure, including parts of Machinato Service Area, one of the Vietnam War-era stockyards most often cited by veterans as an Agent Orange storage site, and ultimately MCAS Futenma. Many in the prefecture have pinned their hopes on the economic benefits brought by re-development of this land. Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture; the U.S. military takes up 10 percent of the land (18 percent of Okinawa’s main island) but contributes less than 5 percent to the economy.

To what extent military contamination hobbles these ambitions looks likely to be one of the most urgent issues facing the island in the years to come. Journalists have a responsibility to force transparency from both the Japanese and U.S. authorities in order to ensure a safe environment for all residents – regardless of which side of the wire they live on.

Jon Mitchell is an Asia-Pacific Journal associate who writes regularly for the Japan Times. He is the author of Chasing Agent Orange on Okinawa, published this month.


On Oct. 30th, Jon Mitchell, Drs. Daniel Broudy and Masami Kawamura will speak at a FCCJ press conference titled “Collateral damage: Agent Orange, military contamination and Okinawa.” The international symposium, Agent Orange and the Politics of Poisons, will be held at Okinawa Christian University Nov. 1 & 2. Details at their website.



Published in: October 2014

Leave a comment


  • Jimmy Rogers

    posted by Jimmy Rogers

    Wednesday, April 15, 2015

    Stationed at MCAF Futenma Okinawa for one year 1968. Base Military police I was all over that base. Even swam in typhoon Cora flood waters on base to read rescue a fellow Marine no way I was not exposed to agent Orange. They sprayed the perimeter fences and air field. One end of runway had storage and were burying containers looked like 50 Gallon drums. Now I am batteling PAD just had bypass surgery on my legs.

  • Steve Avis

    posted by Steve Avis

    Thursday, February 26, 2015

    Dear Mr. Mitchell,
    We want to say Thank You from the bottom of our hearts for your investigation on Agent Orange in Okinawa. We have been following you for awhile now doing some investigating on our own. I was in on duty in Okinawa in 1969-70. I was diagnosed with Parkinson's 2008. My Dr. who is a Specialist with PD has been encouraging me to file a claim with the VA. We will keep trying, & again Thank You!

  • Mary Joyce Evans

    posted by Mary Joyce Evans

    Wednesday, October 22, 2014

    Please keep on investigating the AO on Okinawa. My husband Clyde L Evans died Aug. 9, 2013 from Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Parkensins, Heart disease and neuropathy. He was stationed on Okinawa 1961-62. He was in the USMC. He sprayed, mixed, cleaned out the containers and helped to load and unload barrels of Agent Orange. I have repeatedly submitted his claims to receive his pension from the VA. but have either been denied the claims or have been totally ignored.

  • jim buckley

    posted by jim buckley

    Wednesday, October 22, 2014

    was a drafted veteran stationed there 71-73. I have systemic heart disease, first heart attack at age 38, others have followed, open heart surgery, with the VA turning me down for disability. I also was at Fort Polk and I think agent orange was also sprayed there, VA want admit that either but I had no choose when drafted but to go and now they won't take care of me but I was suppose to take care of them

  • dawn manley

    posted by dawn manley

    Wednesday, October 22, 2014

    Mr. Mitchell - if there is anything I can do to assist you please let me know. I had always felt I was fighting this on my own until I stumbled across your site. Thank God for you and all the other people who are fighting. Please keep me informed of all developments. I will soon be attending a video conference regarding my husband's AO claim. He was stationed on Okinawa from 1965 to 1967. He died from his exposure to AO in June of 2013. I am attempting to continue his claim and prove his AO exposure.

  • Rodney birch

    posted by Rodney birch

    Thursday, October 02, 2014

    Important work that needs more support, only the tip of an iceberg sure to cause problems for generations to come.



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