Tensions with China loom as Japan’s Okinawa celebrates 50 years since US handover

Okinawa, a series of tropical islands in southwestern 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 a third of its inhabitants dead. Nearly 30 years of American rule followed.

On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan in what was seen as a hopeful step forward from the painful legacy of the war. But today they are still home to most of the US military bases in Japan, a deal with the devil that has provided jobs but also fueled concerns about crime and military accidents.

Now, as China becomes increasingly assertive in the Pacific region and tensions rise around nearby Taiwan, an autonomous island that Beijing considers its territory even though it never ruled it, Okinawans worries that once again they may end up on the front lines. , especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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

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

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will participate in ceremonies to mark the handover of Okinawa, while Emperor Naruhito will make remarks via video link from Tokyo.

Okinawans have long resented having to bear the enormous burden of hosting bases, and the issue has occasionally sparked mass protests. Of 812 Okinawans surveyed by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they strongly opposed US bases; only a quarter of the 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.

Tensions are likely 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 could be deployed to Okinawa. The country is reviewing its national security strategy this year.

Current Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki would like to see the base’s footprint reduced, but plans to move some bases off Okinawa, including sending some Marines to Guam, are moving slowly.

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