Okinawa Celebrates 50 Years of End of US Government Amid Protests

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Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, seen on a screen, delivers a speech during a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan after 27 years of US rule on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Tokyo, Japan. The ceremony is being held in Tokyo and Okinawa simultaneously for the first time. (Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

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Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki on Sunday urged Japan’s central government to do more to reduce the US military presence supporting the mainland.

Tamaki said Okinawa has come a long way since the devastation of World War II and nearly three decades of American rule, which ended when it returned to Japan on May 15, 1972. But the small island group’s years-long claim that the continent share its security burden remains unresolved.

“I call on the central government to share with the entire nation the meaning of Okinawa’s rollback and the importance of the permanent peace that Okinawans have longed for,” Tamaki said.

Ceremonies marking the anniversary were held simultaneously in two locations: one in the Okinawan city of Giowan, home to a disputed US air station, and the other in Tokyo. The separate ceremonies symbolize the deep division of views on Okinawan history and continuing suffering.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he takes Okinawa’s concerns seriously and will make efforts to reduce the burden while maintaining the US military deterrence on the islands.

Kishida and his minister in charge of the islands were in Okinawa, where hundreds of protesters staged a rally on Saturday demanding a faster drawdown of US military forces.

More protests were held in Okinawa on Sunday, including one in the Naha prefectural capital, where nearly 1,000 people renewed their demands for peace.

Resentment and frustration run deep in Okinawa over the heavy American 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 that include noise, pollution, accidents and crime related to US troops, Okinawan officials and residents say.

Adding to Okinawa’s fears is 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 hotspots like Taiwan.

Okinawa was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, in which some 200,000 people died, almost half of them Okinawan residents.

Okinawa was sacrificed by Japan’s imperial military to defend the mainland, and many Okinawans are skeptical that the Japanese military will 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 burdens.

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 is only 0.6% of Japanese territory. The load has increased from less than 60% in 1972 because unwanted US bases moved from the mainland.

Emperor Naruhito, in his online address from his palace in Tokyo, acknowledged that “many problems” remain in Okinawa, saying, “I hope that people, including the younger generation, will have a deeper understanding of Okinawa.”

His father abdicated, Akihito, dedicated to atoning for the scars of the war waged on behalf of his father Hirohito, was almost hit by a Molotov cocktail during a 1975 visit as crown prince, but continued to take a special interest in Okinawa.

US President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to visit Japan next week, praised the strong US-Japan partnership and their shared values ​​and vision.

“I am deeply grateful for Japan’s strong support for democracy, freedom and the rule of law and for Okinawa’s contribution to promoting these ideals,” Biden said in a statement.

The biggest sticking point between Okinawa and Tokyo is the central government’s insistence that a US Navy base in a crowded neighborhood, Futenma Air Station, be relocated within Okinawa rather than elsewhere as many Okinawans are demanding. .

Tokyo and Washington initially agreed in 1996 to close the station after the 1995 rape of a girl by three US servicemen led to a mass movement against the base.

In early May, Tamaki submitted a petition to the Kishida government and the US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, demanding a significant drawdown of the US military in Okinawa, the immediate closure of the Futenma base, and the scrapping of a new based in Henoko.

Economic, educational, and social development in Okinawa lagged as Japan enjoyed a post-war economic boom that was aided by lower defense spending due to the US military presence in Okinawa.

The central government’s development fund since the reversal has improved Okinawa’s infrastructure, but the growth of local industry that was greatly hampered during US rule is still largely limited to tourism.

Today, Okinawa’s median household income is the lowest and unemployment is the highest of Japan’s 47 prefectures. If land seized by the US military is returned to the prefecture for another use, it would bring in three times more revenue for Okinawa than the island now gets from bases, Tamaki said recently.

Okinawan authorities regularly face denials by the US in criminal and environmental investigations.

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This story corrects the location of the ceremony from Okinawa to Ginowan, not the capital of Naha Prefecture.

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