Okinawa will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his return to Japan after 27 years of US rule on May 15, 1972, amid protests over an ongoing heavy US military presence and lack of support from the mainland
The ceremonies will be held simultaneously, but at two locations: one in the island prefecture capital of Naha and the other in Tokyo. The individual ceremonies symbolize the deep gulf in understandings of 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 demonstration on Saturday demanding a faster reduction in US military forces, fearing Okinawa could become a frontline of conflict amid growing tensions in China.
More protests were planned in Okinawa’s outer islands on Sunday.
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 archipelago.
Because of the US. bases, Okinawa faces burdens such as noise, pollution, accidents and crime associated with US troops, Okinawa officials and residents say.
Okinawa’s fears are compounded by the increasing deployment of Japanese missile defense and amphibious capabilities on Okinawa’s outer islands, including Ishigaki, Miyako and Yonaguni, which are close to geopolitical hot spots like Taiwan.
Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, which killed approximately 200,000 people, nearly half of whom were Okinawan residents.
Okinawa was sacrificed by the Imperial Japanese Army to defend the mainland, and many Okinawans are skeptical that the Japanese military would protect them in future conflicts, experts say.
The U.S. military maintained its troop presence on the archipelago for 20 years longer than most of Japan, until 1972, because of Okinawa’s strategic importance to Pacific security in deterring Russia and communism.
Many Okinawans had hoped that returning the islands to Japan would improve the economy and human rights record, as well as base taxes.
Today, a majority of the 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan under a bilateral security pact and 70% of military facilities are still located in Okinawa, making up just 0.6% of Japan’s land. The burden has increased from less than 60% in 1972 as unwelcome US bases were moved from the mainland.
The biggest sticking point between Okinawa and Tokyo is the central government’s insistence that a US naval base in a busy neighborhood, the Futenma Air Station, should be moved to Okinawa rather than relocate it elsewhere, as many Okinawans are demanding.
Tokyo and Washington initially agreed in 1996 to shut down the station after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen sparked a massive anti-base movement.
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki earlier in May petitioned Rahm Emanuel, the Kishida government and US Ambassador to Japan, calling for a significant reduction of the US military in Okinawa, the immediate closure of the Futenma base and the demolition of a new base in Henoko.
Economic, educational and social development in Okinawa has lagged as Japan experienced post-war economic growth aided by lower defense spending due to the US military presence in Okinawa.
The central government’s development fund has improved Okinawa’s infrastructure since the reversal, but local industry growth, largely stunted during US rule, remains largely confined to tourism.
Today, Okinawa’s median household income is the lowest and unemployment the highest of Japan’s 47 prefectures. If land taken by the US military were returned to the prefecture for other uses, it would bring in three times more revenue for Okinawa than the island now earns from bases, Tamaki said recently.
Okinawa authorities regularly face denials by the US in criminal and environmental investigations.