NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Okinawa on Monday held a memorial service to mark the 69th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa, with a crowd of some 4,600 people gathering to commemorate the more than 200,000 lives lost in the prefecture during the closing days of World War II.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy were among the guests at a memorial service held to commemorate the war dead.
The anniversary came amid local fears that the island prefecture, where many civilians died after being caught in the battle between Japan and Allied forces, almost all from the United States, may once again be drawn into war as the Abe government pushes forward with efforts to lift the nation’s self-imposed ban on collective self-defense.
“On this day marking 69 years since the Battle of Okinawa, I lower my head silently, while closing my eyelids together with all the people of this country and etching deep in our hearts the fact that we owe our existence today to the sacrifices endured by Okinawa, and the blood and tears shed by its people,” Abe said.
Abe also indicated that he would take measures to lessen the burden imposed by the concentration of U.S. military facilities in the prefecture, pledging to walk a path “close to the feelings” of Okinawan residents when tackling the issue.
Monday’s event was held at the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, the site of the final stage of the battle, with residents and officials of the central and local governments attending, including Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.
In his peace declaration, Nakaima called on the Japanese and U.S. governments to roll back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, which houses roughly 74 percent of all American military facilities in Japan.
He added that “various measures” should be taken with regard to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in the crowded city of Ginowan, including its relocation outside Okinawa, and stressed that the air base should be closed within the next five years.
Residents remain strongly opposed to the Japan-U.S. plan for moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to the Henoko area of Nago, despite the governor’s sudden reversal on the issue late last year.
U.S. military bases were built on land expropriated from islanders in Okinawa during the decades of postwar U.S. occupation that lasted until 1972. Antipathy toward the bases has grown strong among residents, largely due to crimes committed by U.S. service members on Okinawa as well as crashes involving U.S. military aircraft.
The U.S. ambassador’s presence at the ceremony marks Kennedy’s second visit to Okinawa after she assumed the diplomatic post last November.
“Built on the devastation of war by countless acts of courage, reconciliation, perseverance and friendship, our two countries work together to ensure peace and prosperity around the world,” she said at the service. “Visiting this place, on this day, we renew our commitment to that cause.”
Her predecessor John Roos last year became the first U.S. ambassador to Japan to attend the ceremony since Walter Mondale’s visit in 1995.
This year, the names of 54 war dead were newly inscribed on the Cornerstone of Peace in the park, bringing the total to 241,281, regardless of nationality and military or civilian status.