Okinawa, a string of tropical islands in the far southwest of Japan, much closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo, was badly damaged during World War II. Two months of bloody battles between American and Japanese troops killed a third of its population. Almost 30 years of US rule followed.
On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan, 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 diabolical deal that has provided jobs but also raised fears of crime and military accidents.
“These are small islands,” said a protester on Miyako Island, home of Japan’s newest military base, declining to give her name.
“Building a military base will not protect them, but will make them the target of attack.”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will attend the handover ceremony for Okinawa, while Emperor Naruhito will comment via video link from Tokyo.
Okinawans have long resented having to bear the burden of setting up bases, and the issue has occasional mass protests. Of 812 Okinawans polled 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.
Tensions are likely to rise given that lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have said they want to commit to increasing defense spending, including on missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil – missiles that can be deployed on Okinawa. This year, the country is reviewing its national security strategy.
The current Governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, would like to see the base area reduced, but plans to move some bases from Okinawa, including sending some Marines to Guam, are moving slowly.