Okinawa, a series of tropical islands off Japan’s far southwest, much closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, suffered massive devastation during World War II – two months of bloody battles between US and Japanese forces caused the death of a third of its population. Nearly 30 years of US rule followed.
On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan in what was seen as a promising step over the painful legacy of the war. But today they still house most of the US military bases in Japan, a devil’s pact that has provided jobs but also fueled concerns about crime and military accidents.
“These are small islands,” said a protester on Miyako Island, which houses the new Japanese army base, refusing to give his name.
“Building a military base will not protect them, but rather make them a target of attack.”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will attend ceremonies to commemorate the handover of Okinawa, while Emperor Naruhito will comment via video link from Tokyo.
Okinawans have long resented having to bear the enormous burden of hosting the bases, and the matter has occasionally sparked massive protests. Of the 812 Okinawans surveyed by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they were strongly opposed to US bases; only a quarter of the 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.
Tensions are likely to escalate as lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have said they want a commitment to increased defense spending, including missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil – missiles that could be deployed over Okinawa. The country is reviewing its national security strategy this year.
Current Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki would like the base footprint to be reduced, but plans to move some bases off Okinawa, including sending some Marines to Guam, are progressing slowly.