Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki on Sunday urged Japan’s central government to do more to reduce US military presence in the southern group of islands as it marks the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan after 27 years of rule. America, amid frustration and bitterness over the continent’s lack of support.
Tamaki said Okinawa has come a long way from the devastation of World War II and nearly three decades of US rule, which ended when it returned to Japan on May 15, 1972. The burden remains unresolved.
“I ask the central government to share with the entire nation the significance of Okinawa’s reversal and the importance of the permanent peace that Okinawans have long yearned for,” Tamaki said.
The ceremonies marking the anniversary were held simultaneously at two locations – one in the Okinawa town of Giowan, home to a disputed US air station, and another in Tokyo. The separate ceremonies symbolize the deep division of opinion about Okinawa’s history and the ongoing suffering.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he takes Okinawa’s concerns seriously and will make efforts to reduce the burden while maintaining US military deterrence on the islands.
Kishida and his minister in charge of the islands were in Okinawa, where hundreds of protesters staged a demonstration on Saturday demanding a faster reduction of US military forces, as fears grow that Okinawa could become a frontline of conflict in amid rising tensions in China.
More protests were held on Sunday in Okinawa, including one in the prefectural capital of Naha, where nearly 1,000 people renewed their demands for peace.
Resentment and frustration run deep in Okinawa over the strong 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 USA. bases, Okinawa faces burdens including noise, pollution, accidents and crimes related to US troops, officials and Okinawan 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 such as Taiwan.
Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, which killed an estimated 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 maintained its troop presence on the island group for 20 years longer than most of Japan, until 1972, due to Okinawa’s strategic importance to Pacific security to deter Russia and communism.
Many Okinawans hoped that the islands’ return to Japan would improve the economy and human rights situation, as well as basic responsibilities.
Today, most of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact and 70% of military installations are still on Okinawa, which represents just 0.6% of Japanese land. The load increased from less than 60% in 1972 as unwanted American bases were relocated from the mainland.
Emperor Naruhito, in his speech online from his palace in Tokyo, acknowledged that “many questions” remain in Okinawa and said, “I hope that people, including the younger generation, have a deeper understanding of Okinawa.”
His abdicated father Akihito, dedicated to atoning the scars of the war fought on behalf of his father Hirohito, was nearly hit by a Molotov cocktail during a visit as Crown Prince in 1975, but continued to show a special interest in Okinawa.
US President Joe Biden, who is due to visit Japan next week, praised the strong US-Japan alliance and their shared values and vision.
“I am deeply grateful for Japan’s unwavering support for democracy, freedom and the rule of law and for Okinawa’s contribution to advancing these ideals,” Biden said in a statement.
The biggest sticking point between Okinawa and Tokyo is the central government’s insistence that a US naval base in a crowded neighborhood, Futenma Air Station, be relocated within Okinawa rather than being moved elsewhere as required by many Okinawans.
Tokyo and Washington initially agreed in 1996 to close the station after the 1995 rape of a student by three US servicemen led to a massive anti-base movement.
Tamaki in early May presented a petition to the Kishida government and the 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 dismantling of a new base in Henoko.
Economic, educational, and social development in Okinawa lagged behind as Japan enjoyed a post-war economic upswing that was helped by lower defense spending due to the US military presence in Okinawa.
The central government’s development fund since the rollback has improved Okinawa’s infrastructure, but the growth of local industry, which was largely stunted under the US government, 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 another use, it would produce three times as much income for Okinawa as the island now earns from bases, Tamaki said recently.
Okinawan authorities regularly face denials from the US side in criminal and environmental investigations.
This story corrects the location of the Okinawa ceremony to Ginowan, not the prefectural capital of Naha.