Tensions in China Rise as Okinawa, Japan Celebrates 50 Years Since U.S. Handover

Okinawa, a series of tropical islands in the extreme southwest of Japan, much closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, suffered massive devastation in World War II. Two months of bloody battles between American and Japanese forces left up to a third of its people dead. Nearly 30 years of US government followed.

On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan in what was seen as a hopeful step towards the painful legacy of the war. But today they still house most of the US military bases in Japan, a devil’s bargain that created jobs but also fueled concerns about crime and military accidents.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, visits the US military's Foster camp in Okinawa on May 15, 2022, the 50th anniversary of the south island prefecture's reversion to Japan from US rule.
Now, as China becomes increasingly assertive in the Pacific region and tensions mount over Taiwan – a self-governing island that Beijing considers its territory despite never having ruled it – Okinawans are worried they could once again end up on the front line. , especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“These are small islands,” said a protester on Miyako Island, home to Japan’s newest military base, declining to give her name.

“Building a military base will not protect them, but it will make them a target for attack.”

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will attend ceremonies to commemorate the handover of Okinawa, while Emperor Naruhito will deliver comments via videolink from Tokyo.

Okinawans have long resent having to shoulder the enormous burden of hosting bases, and the problem has occasionally sparked massive protests. Of the 812 Okinawans polled by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they were strongly opposed to US bases; only a quarter of 1,115 people outside the city hall said the same.

Tensions are expected to rise as lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have said they want a commitment to more defense spending, including missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil — missiles that can be deployed to Okinawa. The country is reviewing its national security strategy this year.

The current governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, would like the base area to be reduced, but plans to move some bases from Okinawa, including sending some Marines to Guam, are moving slowly.

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