Japan’s Okinawa island chain marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the US occupation and its return to Japan with calls for fewer US bases despite growing concerns about its proximity to an increasingly assertive China.
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 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.”
Okinawans have long resented having to bear the enormous burden of hosting US 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 the 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida acknowledged this, as well as the economic inequalities that still make Okinawa one of the poorest areas in Japan, speaking at a government ceremony in Okinawa.
“Even now, fifty years later, Okinawa still bears a heavy burden,” he said. “We take this seriously and will do everything we can to reduce it.”
Current Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki noted that despite the small area of his prefecture, it is still home to 70 percent of the US bases in Japan, adding, “We have not yet been able to make Okinawa an island of peace.” .
In a written message, US President Joe Biden, who will visit Japan next week, praised bilateral ties and shared values.
“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,” he said.
Tensions in Okinawa are likely to rise further as lawmakers from Kishida’s 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 in Okinawa.