Tensions in China loom as Japan’s Okinawa was handed over to the US 50 years ago

Okinawa, a series of tropical islands in the extreme southwest of Japan, much closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, was greatly devastated during World War II. Two months of bloody fighting between US and Japanese troops killed as many as a third. Nearly 30 years of American rule followed.

On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan, which 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 devil’s bargain that has created jobs, as well as concerns about crime and military accidents.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, visits the US military's Camp Foster in Okinawa on May 15, 2022, the 50th anniversary of the return of the southern island prefecture to Japan from US rule.
With China becoming more assertive in the Pacific and tensions mounting around nearby Taiwan – a self-governed island that considers Beijing its territory despite never having ruled it – Okinawans are concerned they could end up on the front lines again, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“These are small islands,” said a protester on Miyako Island, host of Japan’s newest army base, refusing to give her name.

“Building a military base will not protect them, but rather make them a target of attack.”

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will participate in ceremonies commemorating the handover in Okinawa, while Emperor Naruhito will provide commentary via video link from Tokyo.

Okinawans have long hated having to carry the huge burden of hosting bases, and the issue has occasionally sparked massive protests. Of the 812 Okinawans surveyed by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they strongly oppose US bases; only a quarter of the 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.

Tensions are likely to rise as lawmakers for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have said they want to push for more defense spending, including missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil — missiles that can be deployed on 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 outside of Okinawa, including sending some Marines to Guam, are moving slowly.

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