Discontent simmers as Okinawa marks 50 years since US rule ended

Bol News  |  May 15, 2022

On Sunday, the Japanese island of Okinawa celebrates 50 years since the end of US rule, with anger simmering over American forces’ continued presence and fears of rising regional tensions.

The US occupation of Japan after WWII lasted until 1952, but Okinawa, the country’s southernmost prefecture, took another 20 years to reclaim its independence.

Official ceremonies were held in Tokyo and Okinawa, with the island’s governor, Denny Tamaki, drawing attention to the “excessive weight” that residents in his prefecture bear because it hosts the majority of US bases.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also brought up the long-running topic.

“The government takes this fact seriously, and will continue to make an utmost effort to reduce this burden,” he told the ceremony in Okinawa.

Longstanding concerns for Okinawans about the US troop presence — and more recent worries about the threat of a military confrontation involving China — remained palpable.

“I’m not in the mood to celebrate at all,” Okinawan native Jinshiro Motoyama told AFP ahead of the anniversary as he sat outside a Tokyo government building on a week-long hunger strike.

He, like many Okinawans, believes the region is unfairly burdened by the majority of Japan’s 55,000 US military personnel and is protesting to bring attention to the issue.

Although Okinawa makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass, it is home to around 70% of all US military bases and facilities.

And that presence has resulted in a slew of problems, ranging from car accidents and noise pollution to service-related crimes like the gang rape of a local teenager in 1995.

“Only when issues surrounding US bases have been resolved in a way that satisfies Okinawans can we celebrate,” said Motoyama, a 30-year-old graduate student.

A nationwide poll by broadcaster NHK this month found 80 percent of Japanese consider the current disproportionate distribution of United States forces “wrong” or “somewhat wrong.”

– ‘Island of peace’ –A key flashpoint is the planned relocation of Okinawa’s Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, sometimes dubbed the “world’s most dangerous base” due to its proximity to residential areas.

It is scheduled to move to less-populated Henoko, but many Okinawans want it transferred elsewhere in the country, with 70 percent of local voters rejecting the relocation plan in a non-binding 2019 referendum.

“Upon Okinawa’s reversion, the prefecture and the central government agreed they will aspire to make it the island of peace, but fifty years on, that goal is not achieved yet,” Tamaki told the ceremony on Sunday.

Despite this, construction in Henoko has continued, with the central government justifying it as the “sole viable method” to minimize Futenma’s threats and maintain the deterrence of the Japan-US alliance.

Although the US military presence contributes around 5% of Okinawa’s annual GDP, the prefecture remains Japan’s poorest, with a child poverty rate of about 30%, more than double the national average.

Local officials claim that relocating some of the sites would free up areas that might be used to generate additional cash, such as by drawing more visitors.

Concerns over China’s growing military assertiveness in the region are expected to be on the table when US President Joe Biden visits Japan later this month for the first time since taking office.

“I am profoundly grateful for Japan’s resolute support for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law and for Okinawa’s contribution to advancing these ideas,” Biden said in a statement released Sunday.

Japanese officials have raised worry in recent months about increased Chinese marine activity in the area, including hundreds of take-offs from an aircraft carrier.

As a result, Okinawa is becoming a more crucial location for US and Japanese soldiers, raising concerns among inhabitants about the possibility of being caught up in a future fight.

“When you think of Okinawa, the first thing that crosses your mind might be its beautiful sea, clear blue sky, good food and kind residents,” Motoyama said.

“But I hope this anniversary will make people realize that underneath all this lies the issue of US bases that many Okinawans feel must be resolved.”

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