Okinawa on Sunday is marking the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan after 27 years of American rule on May 15, 1972, amid protests against a continued heavy US military presence and lack of support from the mainland.
Ceremonies will be held simultaneously but at two locations—one in the island prefecture’s capital of Naha and the other in Tokyo. The separate ceremonies symbolize the deep divide in views on Okinawa’s history and ongoing suffering.
Only Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his minister in charge of the islands are in Okinawa, where hundreds of protesters staged a Saturday rally demanding a speedier reduction of US military forces amid growing fear that Okinawa may become a frontline of conflict amid rising China tensions.
More protests were planned Sunday on Okinawa’s outer islands.
Resentment and frustration run deep in Okinawa over the heavy US presence and Tokyo’s lack of effort to negotiate with Washington to balance the security burden between mainland Japan and the southern island group.
Because of the US. bases, Okinawa faces burdens including noise, pollution, accidents and crime related to American troops, Okinawan officials and residents say.
Adding to Okinawa’s fears is the growing deployment of Japanese missile defense and amphibious capabilities on Okinawa’s outer islands, including Ishigaki, Miyako and Yonaguni, which are close to geopolitical hotspots like Taiwan.
Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, which killed about 200,000 people, nearly half of them Okinawan residents.
Okinawa was sacrificed by Japan’s imperial army to defend the mainland, and many Okinawans are skeptical that the Japanese military would protect them in future conflicts, experts say.
The US military kept its troop presence on the island group for 20 years longer than most of Japan, until 1972, due to Okinawa’s strategic importance for Pacific security to deter Russia and communism.
Many Okinawans had hoped that the islands’ return to Japan would improve the economy and human rights situation as well as base burdens.
Today, a majority of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact and 70% of military facilities are still in Okinawa, which accounts for only 0.6% of Japanese land. The burden has increased from less than 60% in 1972 because unwelcomed US bases were moved from the mainland.
The biggest sticking point between Okinawa and Tokyo is the central government’s insistence that a US marine base in a crowded neighborhood, the Futenma air station, should be relocated within Okinawa instead of moving it elsewhere as demanded by many Okinawans.
Tokyo and Washington initially agreed in 1996 to close the station after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US military personnel led to a massive anti-base movement.
Okinawan Gov. Denny Tamaki earlier in May submitted a petition to Kishida’s government and US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel demanding a significant reduction of the US military in Okinawa, the immediate closure of the Futenma base and the scrapping of a new base in Henoko.
Economic, educational and social development in Okinawa lagged behind as Japan enjoyed a postwar economic surge that was helped by lower defense spending because of the US military presence in Okinawa.
The central government’s development fund since the reversion has improved Okinawa’s infrastructure but the growth of local industry that was largely hampered during the US rule is still largely limited to tourism.
Today, Okinawa’s average household income is the lowest and its unemployment is the highest of Japan’s 47 prefectures. If land taken by the US military is returned to the prefecture for other use, it would produce three times more income for Okinawa than the island now makes from bases, Tamaki said recently.
Okinawan authorities regularly face criminal charges by the US side in criminal and environmental investigations.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.