EXPLAINER: Why frustration persists in Okinawa 50 years later

TOKYO (AP) — Okinawa on Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan on May 15, 1972, which ended 27 years of American rule after one of the bloodiest battles of World War II on the island of southern Japan.

The day is marked by more bitterness than joy in Okinawa, which is still burdened by a heavy US military presence and now sees Japanese troops increasingly deployed amid rising tensions in China.

The Associated Press looks at the frustration that still lingers in Okinawa, 50 years after returning to Japan.

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WHAT HAPPENED AT THE END OF WORLD WAR II?

American troops, in their push towards mainland Japan, landed on the main island of Okinawa on April 1, 1945.

The battle lasted until late June, killing an estimated 200,000 people, nearly half of whom were Okinawan residents, including students and victims of mass suicides ordered by the Japanese military.

Okinawa was sacrificed by the Imperial Japanese Army to defend the mainland, historians say. The group of islands remained under American occupation for 20 years longer than most of Japan, until 1972.

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WHY WAS OKINAWA OCCUPIED?

The U.S. military recognized Okinawa’s strategic importance to Pacific security and planned to maintain its military presence to deter Russia and communism in the region.

A 1946 decision by Supreme Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur separated Okinawa and several other remote southwestern islands from the rest of Japan, paving the way for American rule beyond April 28, 1952, the date in which the Treaty of San Francisco entered into force. , ending the seven-year American occupation of the rest of Japan.

According to Okinawa Prefectural Records, Imperial Advisor Hidenari Terasaki conveyed to MacArthur Emperor Hirohito’s “opinion” that the U.S. military occupation of Okinawa should continue to address concerns about Russia.

Economic, educational, and social development in Okinawa lagged as Japan experienced a postwar economic surge that was aided by a decline in defense spending due to the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

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HOW DO OKINAWANS REMEMBER AMERICAN RULE?

During American rule, Okinawans used dollars and followed American traffic laws, and all travel between Okinawa and mainland Japan required a passport.

The grassroots dependent economy has hampered the growth of local industry. Okinawa’s local government had little decision-making power, and authorities had no access to the criminal investigation of US military personnel.

Demands to return to Japan increased in the late 1950s across Okinawa following the confiscation of local lands for American bases.

Many Okinawans have demanded tax reform, wage increases and better welfare systems to correct the disparities between Okinawa and the rest of Japan.

But the delayed reversion, heavy US military presence and mismanagement of central government development funds have hampered the island’s economic development, experts say.

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WHAT ARE OKINAWA’S MAIN PROBLEMS TODAY?

Many Okinawans had hoped that the island’s return to Japan would improve the economy and the human rights situation. A year before the reversion, then-Okinawa chief Chobyo Yara submitted a petition asking the Japanese central government to free the island from military bases.

Today, however, the majority of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact and 70% of military installations are in Okinawa, which is only 0.6% of Japanese territory. The burden increased by less than 60% in 1972 because unwanted American bases were moved from the continent.

Okinawa’s average household income is the lowest and its unemployment rate is the highest of Japan’s 47 prefectures. If land taken by the US military is returned to the prefecture for another use, it would generate three times more revenue for Okinawa than the island currently earns from bases, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki said. .

Due to US bases, Okinawa faces noise, pollution, plane crashes and crime linked to US troops, Tamaki said. A recent NHK television survey showed that 82% of respondents in Okinawa feared being victims of base-related crimes or accidents.

The biggest sticking point between Okinawa and Tokyo is the central government’s insistence that a U.S. Navy base in a crowded neighborhood, Futenma Air Station, be moved to Okinawa instead of elsewhere as demanded by many Okinawans. Tokyo and Washington originally agreed in 1996 to shut down the station after the rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen in 1995 led to a massive anti-base movement.

Despite 72% opposition in the 2019 Okinawa referendum, Tokyo forced the construction of a new runway at Henoko Bay off Okinawa’s east coast. Opponents cited environmental destruction, structural problems and spiraling costs. But the prospects for completion remain uncertain.

Earlier in May, Tamaki passed a new petition calling on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government to significantly reduce the U.S. military in Okinawa, immediately close the Futenma base, and abandon base construction. Henoko.

Adding to Okinawa’s fears is the rapid deployment of Japanese missile defense and amphibious capabilities to Okinawa’s outlying islands, including Ishigaki, Miyako and Yonaguni, which are close to geopolitical hotspots like Taiwan.

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HOW DO OKINAWANS FEEL TODAY?

Resentment at the heavy presence of US troops runs deep. Many Okinawa residents believe that their sacrifice made possible the security alliance between Japan and the United States after World War II.

There are also longstanding tensions between Okinawa and mainland Japan, which annexed the islands, a former independent Ryuku kingdom, in 1879.

There are complaints of discrimination and allegations that Okinawans are forced to play an “enduring role in protecting mainland Japan”, said Hiromori Maedomari, a politics professor at Okinawa International University.

Some people started calling for independence from Japan.

After having their demands repeatedly ignored, many Okinawans, including younger generations for whom US bases are part of their daily lives, feel it is pointless to speak out, said Jinshiro Motoyama, 31, l one of the main organizers of the 2019 referendum.

Calls by ruling lawmakers for further military buildup amid growing tensions around neighboring Taiwan are feared to increase the risk of war.

“I fear plans are being made on the assumption that Okinawans may be victims of conflict,” Motoyama said.

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