© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Tourists take to the streets in the central district of Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. REUTERS / Issei Kato
By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) – The Japanese desert chain Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary on Sunday of the end of US occupation and its return to Japan with demands for more economic growth and fewer US bases despite growing concerns about its proximity to an increasingly confident China.
Okinawa, a series of tropical islands off southwestern Japan much closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, suffered massive devastation during World War II. Two months of bloody fighting between American and Japanese forces killed as many as a third of its people. Nearly 30 years of US 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 host the majority of US military bases in Japan, a devil’s find that has provided jobs but also raised concerns about crime and military accidents.
Now that China is becoming increasingly confident in the Pacific region and tensions are rising around nearby Taiwan, which Beijing considers an abandoned province, the Okinawans are worried that they may be on the front lines again – especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“These are small islands,” said a protester on the island of Miyako, host of Japan’s latest army base, refusing to give his name.
“Building a military base will not protect them but rather make them a target for attack.”
Okinawan residents have long disliked having to bear the heavy burden of hosting US bases, and the issue has occasionally sparked massive protests. Of 812 Okinawan residents surveyed by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they were strongly opposed to US bases; only a quarter of 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 Japan’s poorest areas, in statements at a government ceremony in Okinawa.
“Even now, fifty years later, Okinawa still carries a heavy burden,” he said. “We take this seriously and will do our utmost to reduce it.”
Okinawa’s current governor, Denny Tamaki, noted that despite the small area of his prefecture, it still hosts 70% of US bases in Japan, adding: “We have still not been able to make Okinawa an island of peace.”
In a written statement, US President Joe Biden – who will visit Japan next week – praised bilateral ties and shared values.
“I am deeply grateful for Japan’s determined 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 given that lawmakers in Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have said they want a commitment to more defense spending, including missiles that can hit targets in foreign lands – missiles that could be deployed in Okinawa.
Outside the ceremony, the mood was subdued.
“What has changed? Nothing much, really,” a man who visited a memorial to citizens who died in the war, told NHK.
“We can not celebrate or be happy. It’s just another historical marker.”