Jon Mitchell on the Environmental and Humanitarian Damages Caused by the US and Japanese Militaries in the Pacific

Jon Mitchell is a British journalist and author based in Japan. In 2015, he received the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan's Freedom of the Press Lifetime Achievement Award for his investigations into human rights issues on Okinawa. In 2021, his book, Poisoning the Pacific, won Second Place in the Society of Environmental Journalists' Rachel Carson Environment Book Awards. Mitchell's research has also featured in reports for the U.S. Congress and been the focus of debate in the Japanese parliament. Mitchell reports as a special correspondent for Okinawa Times. He is an Asia-Pacific Journal associate, visiting researcher at the International Peace Research Institute of Meiji Gakuin University and member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He also serves on the Board of Advisors to NGO Civilian Exposure.

Carley Barnhart CMC '22 interviewed Mr. Jon Mitchell on December 14, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Mr. Jon Mitchell.

What inspired you to write Poisoning the Pacific: The US Military's Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons, and Agent Orange? And how did you go about sifting through the thousands of pages of research and source material, knowing what to focus on and what not to use?

First of all, when I was a kid, I heard that my great grandfather had been a victim of chemical weapons in World War I. I heard how he had been severely exposed to poison gas in the trenches of northern Europe. Since I was young I developed a real abhorrence of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction in general. When I was in my teens, I learned about Agent Orange in Vietnam, and that was one reason why in university I decided to major in American Studies. I was so horrified by the use of these defoliants in the Vietnam War.  

Then in 2010 I went to Okinawa to report about the impact of the American military on the environment.  I learned from local residents that Agent Orange had also been sprayed in Okinawa during the 1960s. As you know, during the 1960s, Okinawa was the main staging post for the American military conflict in Southeast Asia. People had heard about nuclear weapons on Okinawa and about chemical weapons like VX gas and sarin. But nobody had really researched Agent Orange on Okinawa. For the next three or four years, I tracked down American military veterans who had been stationed on Okinawa during the 1960s and 1970s. They told me that they themselves had sprayed these defoliants around the bases, around the runways, to clear them of vegetation. These American veterans and their children were sick. But the American government was denying them the support that they wanted, so I wrote probably more than 50 newspaper stories and a Japanese book about Agent Orange on Okinawa. 

One day, I heard from a source that the American government had re-investigated the usage of Agent Orange on Okinawa, and they called a meeting for the Japanese Embassy, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the State Department. When I heard that, the veterans and I became quite excited. We thought that finally the American military would admit to using these chemicals on Okinawa; but at the meeting, they denied everything. They said that they had looked into the issue, and they had not found any documents, so they were unable to give benefits to these Americans. At that point, I came to understand that documentary proof is vital. If we don't have the paper trail to prove these issues, the authorities will never give justice to those who deserve it. 

Starting in 2015, I taught myself how to use the American Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). At first, I didn't know anything about it. I'm not from a military background and journalists in Japan don't use FOIA much. For me, the learning curve was steep. I started filing FOIA in 2015, and got many rejections. But slowly, the more I used FOIA, the more tricks and tips I learned, and the more successes I got. 

Probably the earliest success was in 2016, when I managed to obtain the first ever documentary proof of environmental contamination at a current military base in Okinawa. In that report, in black and white, it said they had discovered dioxin, and they called it “a component of Agent Orange”. That was the smoking gun and the proof I had been looking for. After finding that proof, the story became headlines in Japan. And most importantly, because of that documentary evidence, American military veterans could begin to get compensation for being exposed to Agent Orange on Okinawa. 

That experience of understanding the importance of documentary proof, that experience of being able to help these Americans who had served on Okinawa, showed me how FOIA can be used and help us to overcome these problems. Since then, I've obtained more than 15,000 pages of FOIA documents. I have donated many of these documents to public repositories, such as the University of Hawaii, George Washington University, and Okinawa Prefectural Archives. When it comes to public health, transparency is so important. 

Speaking of transparency, can you elaborate on why the US covered up so much of Japan's chemical and biological warfare information as well? Do you believe it was ultimately to protect itself from its own insidious actions coming out?

When it comes to Japanese weapons of mass destruction, the Japanese military put most of its efforts into producing chemical weapons and biological weapons. Most people have an awareness that the Japanese military used biological weapons in China and about Unit 731. Still, there's a lot of ignorance about chemical weapon usage. Today in China, there are still tens of thousands of dumped chemical munitions. Nobody really reports about this problem. The reason is that America and Japan, in collaboration, covered up this usage of weapons of mass destruction in China during World War II. 

I think there are two main reasons the American military covered it up. First of all, the Americans wanted access to the research. After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States divided up the enemy research, and some was used in the American nuclear program and some in biological weapons research. The Soviets and the Americans split the enemy experts. When the American military occupied Japan, they went looking for Unit 731 and other Japanese scientists, and they cut a deal with them in order to get their research. For the American military, this research was unique. Because in the United States, there was a lot of taboo against human experimentation. But at that time, there was a vast storehouse of knowledge that the Japanese scientists had created by testing biological weapons in China. The American government wanted these documents, so they cut a deal with the Japanese scientists who then were not prosecuted.  

Recall America had just dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and this was a form of poison warfare. The American military initially said there was no radioactive fallout or that the radioactive fallout was very limited and the impact on people was very, very low. But when the American scientists arrived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they started looking at the victims, the hibakusha, they began to understand that the radiation would have a long-term impact on human health. At that point, the American government came to understand that it had committed a form of poison warfare against the people of Japan. The American government was worried that if it brought up Japan's weapons of mass destruction usage in China, then Japan would counter those accusations by saying that America was being hypocritical. The U.S. had used similar, long-lasting weapons of mass destruction against the civilian population in Japan. 

It goes one step deeper, though, because it was not only information that the American military received from Japanese scientists. The American military also used these Japanese scientists, who had conducted human tests with biological weapons in China, to do research on hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the heart of American and Japanese modern relations, there is a coverup on a massive scale. Unfortunately, it's the people of China who have suffered the most. There are still countless chemical munitions buried in China. Sometimes Chinese people become exposed to these Japanese chemical weapons, and there's never been a real public reckoning by the Japanese government about this. 

Can you elaborate on the United States decision making process regarding where to test their nuclear weapons? Do you believe this decision making process points to a sort of human totem pole guiding security decisions?

First of all, let me be clear, this is not only an American military problem, this is a military problem. All around the world, nuclear powers have been testing nuclear weapons in indigenous communities. The British tested nuclear weapons in Australia, and they exposed many Aboriginal Australians to these toxins. The French tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific and were so determined to stop people from interfering that they put a bomb on the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior and then detonated it in Auckland harbor. China detonated nuclear weapons in Uighur communities in western China, and the Soviet Union tested in the north on local indigenous communities. Always, minority indigenous groups bear the burden of weapons of mass destruction testing. Unfortunately, the United States falls into that same pattern of allowing and actively exposing minority groups without any legal recourse to these weapons. 

Why did America test them in the Marshall Islands? They were working with an unknown force. When you look at the first test at Trinity within the United States, the first ever atomic explosion was far more powerful than anticipated. The scientists didn't really understand how strong these weapons were. Then they tested the next two on Japanese civilian populations. Then they did the following two tests; using the same type of device that they dropped on Nagasaki in World War II, they tested one in the Marshall Islands above water, and then they tested the second one under the water. They were quite horrified by the results of the second Marshall Island test. It sent a radioactive tsunami across the sea, and many American service members were exposed trying to clean up the fallout. Those tests really reinforced for the American government that it was dealing with an unknown entity and didn't know what the impact of these weapons might be.

In the early 1950s, America moved some of its atomic tests to Nevada, and so-called “downwinders” suffered from exposure to fallout. But then America started testing thermonuclear weapons, and thermonuclear weapons are far more dangerous than atomic weapons. They became really worried about what the impact of these massive weapons would be, so they wanted to test them as far away; not only as far away from America, but as far away from population centers as possible. They started testing these huge devices, these island destroying devices, in the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese bore the brunt of these tests. 

It is a combination of numbers and geography – the U.S. wanted to test these away from heavily-populated areas. Also, there is a level of disdain for local populations. There's the famous quote from Kissinger about the Marshall Islands who said, “There's only 90,000 people out there who gives a damn?” That really reflects the attitude of American officials and the military at that time, and to an extent, still today within the military, there's always this belief that the military mission has to take priority. Civilians do not factor into those decision-making processes. You can see this repeated time and time again. “The military is there to protect the country, not to protect the environment,” is how the famous quote goes. You can see this with military contamination within the United States as well. Poor communities bear the brunt of contamination. Unfortunately, just like the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American military saw the Marshallese as guinea pigs. After the devices had been detonated, the military allowed them to go back onto contaminated land, even though it knew this land was contaminated because it believed the data would be very useful. 

A significant level of dehumanization from the Americans primarily and Japanese at times struck me when reading your book. The quote from one of the veterans stationed on Okinawa describing Okinawans as “human shields” highlights this. What do you believe is the psyche behind the U.S.’s disregard and disdain for victims of poisoning, whether those be victims in the Bikini Atoll or victims in Okinawa?

My book shows that the same pattern was repeated time and time again, throughout the Western Pacific. During World War Two, the Japanese military was absolutely despicable. They occupied islands, including Okinawa, Marshall Islands, Guam, Saipan, and they treated the indigenous populations terribly. They enslaved them, they put them into concentration camps, and they made them do forced labor. When the American military liberated these islands, they did so with much bravery and compassion; they really saved these local populations. The local people initially had great hope, because they thought that they would be granted full democratic rights after the war. But unfortunately, the American military seized their property, pushed them onto terrible land where they couldn't continue farming, and then the American military either stored or tested weapons of mass destruction on that stolen land, or they put bases there that contaminated the environment so badly, that even today, 70 years later, these indigenous people cannot return. This happened on Okinawa, the Marshall Islands, and other islands in the western Pacific. 

When you look at the contamination of these areas, you must see it through the lens of colonialism. Throughout the Cold War, these areas existed in a gray zone. The American government does not like to use the word “colony”. Colony is a word for European powers. But these areas – such as Saipan and Guam – lack the full protection of the American Constitution. In the case of Okinawa, residents lacked Japanese or American constitutional protection between 1945 and 1972 so the American military could get away with doing things not possible on the mainland, or in Japan. At that time, Okinawa was the major launching pad for the war in Vietnam. You never hear that in American histories of the Vietnam War; you don't hear Japan or Okinawa mentioned, even though American top military commanders said, “without Okinawa, we cannot continue the war in Vietnam.” 

Okinawa had more than 1,000 nuclear warheads stored on the island. There were at least two accidents involving nuclear weapons. One Nike nuclear missile was shot by mistake into Naha Harbor and one massive one megaton bomb was dumped by accident into the sea, off the coast of Okinawa. Also, thousands of tons of chemical weapons were stored not far from civilian communities. People only really understood the implications when there was a leak of nerve agent in 1969 that sickened 24 Americans.

When there were the negotiations for Okinawa to return to Japanese control, which eventually occurred in 1972, the Japanese government promised to the people of Okinawa that the nuclear weapons would be gone and also the number of bases would be reduced to a proportionate level as on mainland Japan. Probably America kept the first part of the deal and removed those weapons. But the second half of that agreement, sadly, was broken. Still today 70% of American military bases in Japan are situated in Okinawa. For the Japanese government, this is convenient. It keeps the bases away from mainland Japan, and it keeps the problems there on Okinawa. Okinawa has more than 30 American military bases, and when you concentrate that many bases in such a small area, it concentrates the crime, accidents, and contamination. 

Starting from World War II until today, there have been so many instances of contamination. Now, the problem has become worse due to pollution from forever chemicals, PFAS. About 450,000 people's drinking water source has been contaminated. In April 2020 the Japanese government introduced guidelines for PFAS, but they are not legally enforceable. Exacerbating the problem is SOFA, the Japan U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, whereby the Japanese government cannot enter the bases to check for contamination, and the American military is not held responsible for cleanup costs of its contamination. While Okinawa has returned to Japanese control, there's still a large U.S. military presence there. 

Would it take the removal of military personnel from Okinawa for the Japanese government to begin to pay for the suffering caused? Or could that begin to take place even now with military personnel still on Okinawa?

Within the United States, the situation has become better. It is still not perfect by any means, but since the 1970s, the American government has worked quite hard to make the military more accountable for contamination and environmental damage. Due to incidents, such as nerve agent accidents at Dugway proving ground and Okinawa, people began understanding military contamination and understanding industrial contamination. Within the United States, the federal government has attempted to hold the military accountable for its environmental damage. And with that level of accountability, also, there has been transparency. In the United States, if you live near a base, you can go on the EPA homepage, and you can check the Superfund status of those sites within the base. You can find out, to an extent, what contaminants are in your community. 

But that level of transparency does not apply to Japan, because of the Status of Forces Agreement, and because the Japanese government does not like to anger the American military. It is really difficult for local residents in Japan to know just how badly those bases are contaminating their environment. That brings me back to the importance of FOIA. In Japan, the only way that we can get a sense of military contamination is by filing Freedom of Information Act requests. 

Sadly, Okinawan children have borne the burden of American military contamination. During the U.S. occupation, there were cases of the drinking water in schools being contaminated by dumped military chemicals. In 1968, there were some children swimming in the sea, near a base and more than 200 had their skins burnt due to the dumping of chemicals. More recently, there was a soccer pitch for children in Okinawa City where workers discovered more than 100 barrels of toxic chemicals which had been buried by the military. 

In your book, you reference a quote that seems to characterize many in the Department of Defense’s mentality towards the environment: “The military is here to protect the nation, not the environment.” Do you think this mentality has at all changed in light of the Pentagon’s recent declaration that climate change is a national security threat?

The Pentagon says climate change is a national security threat, while still pumping out more CO2 than many individual countries. The American military is a vast consumer of fossil fuels. Even in the recent COP26 global warming symposium in Scotland, the military was still allowed to stay exempt from reporting how much CO2 it actually creates. And it is not just the US military. Militaries in most countries do not report how much fuel they're using and do not figure into the public debate about global warming. Everyone talks about civilian passenger aircraft, but not the military jets that fly hundreds of flights a day. Without the military putting that into context and explaining that it is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world, you cannot really take seriously its claims that it is doing more to combat climate change. 

Also, the environmental problem for the military is not only about climate change and CO2. It is also about contamination. Many people in America are beginning to realize the impact of forever chemicals that contaminate the drinking water of so many communities living near military installations. The military has suspected since the 1970s that these fire-fighting chemicals are not good for the environment and they build up in the human body, but for many years, it had not done anything to alert local communities. 

Although the American military is starting to come to terms with the environmental impact of its operations, it still has a long, long way to go. Unfortunately, to criticize the military is taboo for many in the U.S. media. But until the media brings these issues to public attention, the American military will be able to continue contaminating communities and pumping CO2 into the environment. In Japan, the impact is much worse because there's no transparency or accountability. The Japanese mass media is just as bad as the American mass media in failing to report on these issues. The American and Japanese governments are keen to talk about a free and open Pacific, but they really have to factor environmental justice into this vision. 

Carley Barnhart CMC '22Student Journalist
Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *