ITOMAN, Okinawa Pref. – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed here Wednesday to ease the burden U.S. military bases pose to the people of Okinawa, as the prefecture marked the 59th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa between the U.S. and Japanese forces in the closing months of World War II.
Koizumi made the pledge at a memorial service hosted by the prefectural government at Peace Memorial Park in Itoman to honor the more than 200,000 people who lost their lives during the fighting, which was the only ground war Japan proper experienced during the war.
Some 7,100 people, including Koizumi, offered a silent prayer at noon for the dead and to call for peace, according to officials.
June 23 commemorates the end of the main fighting in Okinawa, which came with the defeat of the Japanese forces following the April 1, 1945, invasion by U.S. forces.
During the 82-day battle, one-third of Okinawa’s population of 450,000 at the time died. More than 200,000 Japanese, about half of them civilians, and nearly 15,000 U.S. soldiers also died.
The fighting left some Okinawa civilians with bitter memories and distrust of the Imperial Japanese Army, which is believed to have slaughtered many locals to prevent them from providing the U.S. invaders with intelligence.
The terrible suffering of the people of Okinawa left a legacy of opposition to any military-related moves by the government in Tokyo.
This year’s commemoration follows Koizumi’s dispatch of Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq in January, and his decision to have the troops take part in a multinational force in Iraq.
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine, in a speech at the ceremony, said: “The grief of losing loved ones does not disappear even 59 years after the war.
“Today, we are still forced to suffer from the excessive burden of the U.S. military bases. The issue of the U.S. bases in Okinawa Prefecture is related to the security of our nation and is critical to the entire nation. The issue should be addressed by the Japanese people as a whole as their own problem.”
Okinawa, about 1,500 km southwest of Tokyo, accounts for about 75 percent of the land used by the U.S. forces in Japan. The prefecture came under U.S. control after the war and was returned to Japan in 1972.
Koizumi, who attended the ceremony as a guest speaker, said: “The concentration of U.S. military bases here has imposed too much of a burden on the people of Okinawa Prefecture. The government will make all-out and sincere efforts to ease the burden of the people.
“The government will also make efforts in promoting an independent economy and ensuring good living standards for the people by promoting industrial development and creation of employment.”
After the ceremony, Koizumi said adequate deterrence must be retained when reviewing the presence of U.S. forces in Okinawa in the context of Washington’s realignment of its forces overseas.
“It is necessary to strike a balance between reducing the burden (on Okinawa) and maintaining deterrence,” Koizumi said. “Discussions will be conducted from the viewpoint of how we can maintain adequate deterrence.”
The names of 672 people, including 111 who died in two sanitariums for Hansen’s disease sufferers in Okinawa at the time of the war, were added this year to the list of dead inscribed on the Cornerstone of Peace in the park, bringing to 239,092 the number of Okinawa war dead.
Ahead of the ceremony, some 800 people gathered — including relatives of the war dead — and took part in a 7 km march from an elementary school in Itoman to the park.
Many other relatives visited the Cornerstone of Peace from the early morning and placed offerings of flowers and fruit in front of the stone bearing the names of their kin.