NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – When Tokyo won the bid last Sept. 7 to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, it was a mixed blessing to people in Okinawa, especially seniors.
On the same day 50 years earlier, the Olympic torch arrived in Okinawa ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. Although the prefecture was still under U.S. administration, the flame’s arrival was regarded as its arrival in Japan.
Okinawa had been the site of fierce battles in the closing days of World War II, resulting in more than 200,000 military and civilian Japanese and American casualties combined, and the subsequent torch relay became a symbol of peace.
Okinawa was “Japan’s first landing point as well as the end of the foreign course” for the torch, which had been flown in from Taiwan, said Shigeru Yosano, who served as secretary-general of the 1964 Olympic organizing committee, touching on Okinawa’s delicate position at the time.
The torch was delivered to Okinawa a day late because of a typhoon.
To bring it to Japan’s mainland on schedule, a plan to shorten the relay course in Okinawa was discussed.
But the plan was rebuffed by local residents who saw it as Okinawa being abandoned yet again, just as it had been during the war, according to a memoir by Jugo Toma, who was involved in arranging the relay course in Okinawa.
As a result, the torch was split into two, with one taken to the mainland to avoid a delay in the relay there.
The torch relay in Okinawa was carried out as scheduled and streets along the course were filled with people waving Hinomaru flags.
Back then, the display of the Japanese national flag, seen as an anti-U.S. symbol, in public places was banned in Okinawa by the Occupation authorities except on national holidays. Although Sept. 7, 1964, a Monday, was not a public holiday, huge crowds came out with flags, reflecting their ardent desire for Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese administration.
But Okinawa people are split over whether the torch relay contributed to the prefecture’s return to Japan in 1972 — and feel bitter about how their lives have not improved since.
The relay had “a great impact” in bringing about Okinawa’s reversion in 1972, said Isamu Miyagi, 71, who became the first torchbearer. At the time, he was a 22-year-old senior at the University of the Ryukyus.
Miyagi, now a former professor at Okinawa International University, said he had felt no identity as a Japanese national until he raised the torch with his right hand before running the relay.
“I felt a burst of electricity running through my heart” amid repeated rousing cheers of “banzai” among people gathering to see the start of the relay, he recalled. “I was determined to run firmly as an Okinawan and a Japanese.”
But Kazumi Tomiyama, 51, of the Okinawa Prefectural Culture Promotion Foundation, sees things differently.
“Euphoria over the sense of unity with Japan was a temporary, barren flower,” she said. It was simply “a kind of vent” for frustrations local people felt about the U.S. military’s heavy-handed administration.
While the torch relay did not directly lead to the U.S. decision to return Okinawa to Japan, the euphoria is believed to have heightened expectations among local people.
In 1965, then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato said the “postwar period would not end for Japan until the reversion of Okinawa.” It took seven more years before Okinawa was returned.
Local people’s dreams of attaining the same level of life as other parts of Japan have not come true.
Okinawa continues to face problems resulting from its status as home to more than 70 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan, including dangerous accidents. Once was the crash of a U.S. helicopter into a building at Okinawa International University in 2004.
In addition, Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry data show Okinawa has long been at the bottom of prefectural rankings in wages and jobs.
As of 2012, the average monthly wages for Okinawans working for businesses with five to 29 employees came to ¥242,857, against the national averages of ¥314,127. For someone at a company with 30 or more workers, the average in Okinawa is ¥264,102, compared with ¥356,649 nationwide.
Okinawa’s unemployment rate is also the highest, standing at 6.8 percent in 2012, compared with the national average of 4.3 percent.
Against this background, the national flag continues to reveal locals’ ambivalence toward the mainland. In 1987, a man in Okinawa pulled down and burned a Hinomaru before the start of the National Sports Festival held in the prefecture, an incident apparently triggered by his memories of cruel treatment of local people by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war.
“The Olympic torch relay was a symbol of hope” for Okinawans, said Takeshi Urasaki, a 76-year-old professor emeritus at Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts. “The (flag-burning) incident was a symbol of being betrayed by Japan after the reversion.”