Forty years have passed since Okinawa reverted to Japanese rule on May 15, 1972, after 27 years’ of occupation by the United States following the end of World War II. Polls show that about 80 percent of Okinawans regard the restoration of Japanese rule as a positive development. The central government has poured some ¥10.2 trillion into Okinawa over the past 40 years to facilitate its development, mainly to improve infrastructure. Per capita annual income in Okinawa has also increased about 4.6 times over the same period to ¥2.04 million as of fiscal 2009 — raising it from the poorest prefecture in the nation to the second least well off ahead of Shikoku’s Kochi Prefecture. Still, it is clear that the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa is hampering the healthy economic and social development of Japan’s southernmost prefecture.
In the years when Okinawa was under U.S. military rule — the longest direct rule by the U.S. military of any occupied area after World War II — Okinawans strongly pushed for reversion to Japanese rule despite the fact that Okinawa existed as the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until 1879, when Japan fully incorporated Okinawa into the nation. The driving force behind the reversion movement was the Okinawan people’s strong desire to see their islands governed under the war-renouncing Japanese Constitution — a desire deriving from having lived through the bloody 1945 Battle of Okinawa in which one-quarter of the local population — some 120,000 people — are believed to have died, and a desire to see the end to the foreign occupation by U.S. military forces.
Both the Japanese government and people must make every effort to better understand the desire and passions that launched the reversion movement. And they must strictly examine whether the nation’s policies since Okinawa’s return have been applied, truly embracing the principles and the spirit of the antiwar Constitution, and whether the prefecture’s residents have benefitted from these policies.
The situation unique to Okinawa is that some 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, in terms of land area, are concentrated there, and that those facilities occupy some 19 percent of Okinawa Island. While U.S. military facilities decreased in size and number in mainland Japan during the 1950s and ’60s, those on Okinawa were strengthened accordingly. Currently the biggest issue in Okinawa in relation to U.S. military bases is the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from crowded Ginowan City in central Okinawa. According to a joint poll by the Ryukyu Shimpo and Mainichi Shimbun newspapers, 89 percent of the Okinawans polled want the Futenma functions to be moved to another prefecture or abroad, or abolished altogether. Only 11 percent support the Japanese and U.S. governments’ plan to move the air station to the Henoko area in the northern part of Okinawa Island. Even nationwide only 28 percent of those surveyed support the Henoko plan.
What is clear is that an overwhelmingly majority of Okinawans oppose the Henoko plan and want the air station removed from the island. The Japanese government must overcome its bureaucratic inertia and earnestly urge the U.S. government to rethink the Henoko plan. Both governments should consider whether maintaining deterrence really requires keeping the Futenma functions in Okinawa and whether it is wise to keep them there given the potential threat posed by Chinese missiles.
The poll shows that while 69 percent of Okinawans think that concentration of U.S. military bases in Okinawa imposes an “unequal” burden on Okinawa, the percentage of those who share this sentiment nationwide is just 33 percent. In Okinawa, 22 percent think that such concentration “cannot be helped” while the corresponding rate nationwide rises to 37 percent. According to a joint poll by the Okinawa Times and Asahi Shimbun newspapers, 50 percent of Okinawans think the fact that 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa constitutes a form of discrimination. Nationwide, only 29 percent agree with this sentiment.
These poll results show that many mainland Japanese are either indifferent to or not interested in the Okinawan people’s difficult situation. Behind this attitude is likely a general lack of knowledge of Okinawan history, especially the process in which Okinawans were forced to assimilate and adopt the ideology of Imperial Japan. Mainland Japanese also fail to appreciate the background of and the harsh experience in the Battle of Okinawa and 67 years of heavy U.S. military presence. It is imperative that schools allocate considerable more class time to the study of this difficult period of Okinawan history.
Poll results make it clear that many Okinawans feel the Japan-U.S. security arrangement is maintained at their prefecture’s expense. In fact, the Ryukyu Shimpo and Mainichi Shimbun poll shows that only 16 percent of those Okinawans polled think the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty should be maintained. The Japanese government should seriously take into account the views of Okinawans and their belief that they are being discriminated against and treated unequally by the central government. Such sentiments are a destabilizing factor for both Japan as a nation and Japanese-U.S. relations.
The key to the healthy development of Okinawa is the creation of strong indigenous industries. Tokyo should heed Okinawa’s desire to develop such industries through the return of land used to host U.S. military facilities and to develop industries that can take advantage of Okinawa’s economically strategic location, its abundant nature and its unique culture.