TOKYO: The Japanese island chain of Okinawa marked on Sunday (May 15) the 50th anniversary of the end of the US occupation and its return to Japan with ceremonies and celebrations amid growing concerns about its proximity to an increasingly China. assertive
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 still house most of the US military bases in Japan. This has provided jobs, but has also fueled concerns about crime and military accidents.
Now, as China becomes increasingly assertive in the Pacific region and tensions rise in nearby Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province, Okinawans worry they may once again 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.”
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 polled by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56 percent said they strongly opposed US bases; only a quarter of 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.
Tensions are likely to rise as lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) 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.