On May 15, 1972, Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan once again. Up until then, for 27 years since World War II — when the islands endured some of the most intense fighting of the entire brutal conflict — Okinawa had been under U.S. military administration, so reversion to Japanese rule should have heralded more peaceful and prosperous times.

But today Okinawa is hurting.

The rate of unemployment is the highest in the nation, and when people can find a job, their salaries are the lowest. Meanwhile, fewer students in Okinawa finish high school than in any other prefecture in the country, and fewer go to university.

That’s before even starting to consider the 32 American military bases that together monopolize almost 20 percent of Okinawa’s main island, forcing people into cramped residential strips, hobbling infrastructural improvements and making outside businesses reluctant to invest in the islands’ economy owing to uncertainty over the bases’ future.

Without a doubt, the 40 years since reversion have not been kind to Okinawa — but how about the next four decades? Will the islands’ fortunes improve by 2052?

Before looking forward, first it’s necessary to learn from the past — starting 500 years back in more settled times — to see how Okinawa has ended up in its current mess.

During the 16th century, Okinawa was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, whose leaders parlayed its strategic location in the South China Sea by funneling Chinese investments into trading textiles, sulfur and spices throughout the region.

This commerce brought Okinawa a measure of wealth — but it also caught the avaricious eye of a Kyushu-based samurai clan by the name of Satsuma. In 1609, this clan dispatched a party of warriors to Okinawa to muscle a cut of the kingdom’s profits.

At the time, the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate was too occupied consolidating its newly won power to intervene and follow the Satsuma lead, while in the 1630s a series of laws were passed to ban both outward and inbound international trade or travel. That left the Satsuma with a convenient well-established backdoor in Okinawa through which they could profit from trade with the Asian mainland.

For centuries after that, Japan maintained the islands in a geopolitical gray zone — neither as a formal part of Japan nor an entirely independent nation.

In the late 19th century, though, the United States and European nations began stripping swaths of Asia of natural resources and subduing any resistance they encountered with guns and opium. So to prevent Okinawa falling under foreign control, in 1879 — 11 years after the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor Meiji — Japan declared Okinawa a fully fledged prefecture.

Thereafter, Tokyo set about bringing the islands into the homogeneous embrace of the homeland. To do so, over the next decades it suppressed Okinawa’s culture, degraded its native languages as mere dialects of Japanese and disproportionately taxed the population — contributing to a famine in the 1920s that killed thousands and forced still more to seek survival as far afield as Hawaii, Peru and Brazil.

Japanese disdain for Okinawa reached a climax in the final months of World War II, when the Imperial Army sacrificed it as a suteishi — a throwaway pawn — to bog down the Allies and make them think twice about invading the main islands.

During the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, more than a quarter of the civilian population died — including many in military-enforced mass suicides, and those shot by Japanese soldiers as suspected spies for speaking Okinawan languages.

Then in July 1945, the U.S. military declared Okinawa under its control — and since then it has never left.

The Allied occupation of mainland Japan ended with the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952. But thanks to a secret 1947 memo sent to Washington by Emperor Hirohito inviting the U.S. to keep control of Okinawa as a bulwark against international communism, America retained the islands.

Keen to have secure bases within bombing range of communist countries in Asia — primarily, of course, China — the U.S. rapidly set about seizing civilian land and transforming Okinawa into one of the most militarized places on the planet — what it termed the “Keystone of the Pacific.”

While the 1952 deal allowed Tokyo to focus its economic exertions on rebuilding its industrial strength on the mainland, for the next 20 years Okinawa languished under U.S. administration as a Third World economy.

“The 1972 reversion was supposed to bring economic parity to Okinawa,” says Masahide Ota, the grand old man of Okinawan politics and the islands’ governor between 1990 and 1998. “In the 1960s, we campaigned to return to Japan because at the time neither the Japanese nor the American constitutions were applicable to Okinawa. But even after 1972, the Constitution was thwarted and the mainland continues to discriminate against us.”

If anybody is qualified to discuss Japan’s unfair treatment of Okinawa, it is 86-year-old Ota. In 1945 at the age of 19, he was conscripted into the Imperial Army’s Blood and Iron Student Corps and witnessed firsthand the barbarism of the Battle of Okinawa.

Then during his governorship, his anti-bases stance raised hackles on the mainland, culminating, as many people believe, in a Tokyo-orchestrated carrot-and-stick campaign that railroaded him out of office by tempting the electorate with multi-billion-yen sweeteners and a court case in which Ota was sued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. for dereliction of his professional duty.

Like many Okinawan people, Ota regards the 1972 reversion as another betrayal to add to the sellouts of 1609, 1879, 1945 and 1952. But despite this long and bitter list, he is remarkably optimistic about Okinawa’s future — particularly in regards to the military bases. Not only is he confident that the islands can survive without them, but he believes Okinawa will prosper after they have gone.

“Back in the 1960s, the income from U.S. bases amounted to 52 percent of the whole income that Okinawa gained. By reversion, that had decreased to 15 percent. Today it amounts to less than 5 percent, but our research has found that if the military bases were returned to civilian use, we could guarantee 10 times the current employment. For instance, when Omoromachi (in Naha) was under military control, civilian employment was less than 300. In 2002, that area was handed back to Okinawa, and today there are more than 30,000 people employed there.”

In April 2012, Tokyo announced the phased return of five U.S. installations, but at the heart of any discussion on Okinawa’s future is Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma at Ginowan on the outskirts of Naha — a festering 480-hectare thorn in Okinawa-U.S.-Japan relations.

To date, Okinawan politicians and business leaders have floated a potpourri of projects suggesting how to use the land if and when it is ever returned. These range from the construction of a brand-new town, building a Macao-esque casino resort or restoring its 2-km-long runways to farmland.

However, Ota raises a concern that is all too often overlooked by those making plans for the postbase future.

“Even if MCAS Futenma is returned tomorrow, it may be decades before it can be put to civilian use due to contamination of the land. Take for example Onna Communication Site; the U.S. military gave it back almost 20 years ago but we still can’t use it because that ground is contaminated with seven different toxic chemicals.”

As for removal of the other U.S. military facilities on Okinawa, there is little impetus to encourage the U.S. to vacate them. Japanese taxpayers contribute ¥190 billion a year for the upkeep of their runways, mess halls and golf courses, making it cheaper for the Pentagon to keep its troops on the islands than bring them home.

But even a U.S. exit tomorrow couldn’t turn back the clock on the almost 70 years during which the U.S. military has used the bases to store (and sometimes dump) a witches’ brew of poisonous materials — from Nike nuclear missiles and mustard gas in the 1960s, to depleted-uranium munitions in the ’90s and, currently, irradiated equipment from its relief operations near Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Recent revelations from the pages of The Japan Times have added Agent Orange — the Vietnam War defoliant containing large volumes of extremely toxic dioxin — to this list of pollutants on the U.S. bases.

The accounts published here of more than 30 seriously-ill American veterans of shipping, storing and spraying the herbicide on the island have embarrassed U.S. officials who continue to consistently deny Agent Orange was ever present on Okinawa.

At the same time, the campaign to win justice for sick former service members and Okinawan civilians has created a never-seen-before solidarity of environmental activists, veterans-rights campaigners, politicians — both in the U.S. and Japan — and lawyers.

In the past, no matter what form of contamination, and despite protests from the prefecture and local residents, the U.S. government has repeatedly refused to foot the bill for the massive clean-up costs of former bases. Quite how it will approach the issue of Agent Orange contamination remains to be seen.

For Ota, this environmental threat far outweighs the danger most usually cited to justify the continued American military presence — China.

Whereas many Washington and Tokyo pundits contend that Beijing’s increased economic clout will soon extend into military expansionism, Ota cites the islands’ long history of trade with the Middle Kingdom.

“For more than 500 years, Okinawa and China have enjoyed a close and intimate friendship. In Fujian, for example, there used to be an Okinawan embassy. And there are tombs of Okinawan people in the region.”

Ota believes that the coming years will see closer ties between Okinawa and China — and the first signs of the future are already evident in the Chinese-language signs along Kokusai-dori, a main tourist thoroughfare in the island’s capital, Naha.

But if Ota’s predictions are accurate, it raises a second concern — not the invasion of the islands by hordes of camouflaged Chinese soldiers — but their inundation by armies of tourists wearing bikinis and packing holiday paperbacks.

From kings to a pawn and offshore U.S. base

1400s: Okinawa embarks on a trading relationship with China. China stays out of Okinawan domestic affairs in return for a tribute in goods.

1609: The Satsuma clan from present-day Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu invades Okinawa and begins to take a share of Okinawa’s trading revenues. For the next 270 years, Okinawa exists in a gray zone.

1879: Okinawa becomes a prefecture of Japan; Japan introduces policies to bring Okinawa in line with the rest of the country — including the banning of female tattooing and shamanism, both of which are aspects of traditional culture.

1920s: Widespread famine causes tens of thousands to leave Okinawa in search of work overseas and in mainland Japan (where they encounter widespread discrimination).

1945: More than 145,000 civilians die in the Battle of Okinawa.

1952: The Treaty of San Francisco ends the Allied Occupation of mainland Japan, but Okinawa remains under U.S. administration.

1959: Seventeen people, including 11 children, are killed and 121 are injured when a U..S. military jet crashes into Miyamori Elementary School in Ishikawa City after taking off from the U.S. Kadena Air Base.

1969: A leak of nerve gas on the Kadena base sickens 23 U.S. military personnel — and confirms suspicions about the presence of biochemical weapons on the island.

1970: Some 3,000 Okinawans participate in an anti-U.S. riot in Koza City (now Okinawa City), burning more than 80 U.S.-plated cars and injuring more than 60 Americans.

1972: Okinawa reverts to Japanese control after Washington demands $650 million from Tokyo in a secret agreement.

1978: Island road rules change so cars drive on the left, as elsewhere in Japan.

1995: Following the gang rape of an Okinawan child, Washington and Tokyo enter into the formal Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) agreement to reduce the U.S. military presence on Okinawa — including the return of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, at Ginowan outside the capital Naha.

2004: A U.S. military helicopter crashes on Okinawa International University campus in Ginowan.

2010: Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigns after failing to gain U.S. agreement to relocate Futenma off the island.

2012: Plans to station accident-prone V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft on the island in July anger Okinawan residents. (J.M.)

With massive numbers of Chinese people entering the ranks of the middle class each year, these newly minted travelers will likely seek their own slice of the sun, just as Britain’s new postwar middle classes did in Spain in the ’70s and ’80s, when faux pubs, fish and chip shops, darts bars and “kiss-me-quick” straw hats rode roughshod over their holiday hosts’ culture. The prospect of Okinawa becoming awash with strips of discount restaurants promising Guangzhou home-cooking and clubs overflowing with Tsingtao lager louts is a bitter pill to swallow no matter what money it brings.

Even with no new influx of holidaymakers, Okinawa Island’s environment has already been pushed to a tipping point due to the overdevelopment of tourism over the past four decades. Among those concerned by this is Hideki Yoshikawa, a cofounder of the nongovernmental organization Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa.

“Since reversion, the biggest change has been from land reclamation — including artificial beaches,” Yoshikawa points out. “Okinawa’s natural shoreline is coral, so we used to think the fake beaches were good places for children to swim — but now we know otherwise. The sand is from the deep sea and when it is dumped on the coast it introduces unfamiliar species. Dugong (an endangered cousin of the manatee) used to live along our shores — but reclamation projects destroyed the sea grass on which they grazed, driving them away.”

As well as the artificial beaches, Yoshikawa cites the harmful effects of palm tree-packed resorts that conform to tourists’ expectations of what a subtropical paradise should look like but have very little relation to Okinawa’s true flora or fauna.

Additionally, he points an accusing finger at the dozens of golf courses built to cater to visitors, but which take inordinate amounts of water — and harmful grounds-keeping chemicals — to maintain.

Yoshikawa does not share Ota’s optimism about his islands’ future.

“To be honest, I can’t see beyond the next 10 years — let alone 40 years ahead,” he says. “Can Okinawa ever recover from this overdevelopment? I’m a strong believer in the resilience of nature. But in only 40 years, it won’t be able to rebound. It has already been destroyed too much.”

The tourist enclaves that currently blight Okinawa’s coasts and look certain to expand in the future are predominantly managed by mainland Japanese companies which siphon profits off the islands, bringing little benefit to local people. But to blame the islands’ environmental problems solely on outside forces would be disingenuous.

Okinawan construction companies — many with close ties to local politicians — have been more-than-willing participants in the destruction of their islands’ environment. A combination of forest clear-cutting and irresponsible public-works projects has rendered Okinawa’s rivers among the most polluted in the nation. Meanwhile, an ongoing prefecture-backed landfill scheme at Awase threatens countless endangered species and will cause irreparable damage to the islands’ largest tidal flats.

With few other employment options, the collaboration of many Okinawans in the destruction of their own island is perhaps to some extent understandable in terms of economic necessity. But it also suggests something more depressing — that the mainland’s infusion of an inferiority complex in Okinawan people has taken root.

One person who doesn’t shrink from acknowledging as much is Byron Fija, a teacher of Uchinaaguchi (one of the islands’ indigenous languages), who is fighting to reverse Okinawans’ sense of inferiority.

“When Japan invaded our islands, they forbade the six Okinawan languages and Okinawan people’s pride fell,” he notes. “Even when I was growing up in the 1980s, mainlanders saw Okinawa as being backward — and Okinawan people felt that lack of pride, too.”

Whereas language promotion has traditionally been the realm of po-faced academics, Fija has put a charismatic (and handsome) face to the Uchinaaguchi revival by hosting TV and radio shows and staging regular folk-music performances.

“In 2009, UNESCO declared that the languages of Okinawa were in danger of becoming extinct by 2050, but most Okinawan people don’t care,” Fija explains. “Our education has brainwashed us. In Okinawa’s schools, we only learn Japanese and English — not our own languages.”

There is a well-known Uchinaaguchi saying that states: “When you forget your language, you forget your country.” But Fija has devised a comprehensive strategy to save both his island and his native tongue.

“Uchinaaguchi ought to become a compulsory school subject for all children from the ages of 6 to 16,” he declares. “Accompanying this, there has to be an all-Okinawan-language TV station in order to reverse the backward image that people have of Uchinaaguchi. It will take a concerted effort, but I’m confident that Okinawa in 2052 will be both a multilingual and multicultural society.”

Fija has chosen an unlikely role model for Okinawa to follow: Wales. The bleak moors and damp valleys of Merthyr are a world away from Okinawa’s jungles, but Fija admires the grassroots activism and national and linguistic pride that, in the 1980s and ’90s, led to Wales adopting a broad policy of bilingualism in education, official communications, road signage and more.

“Variety is a beautiful thing and multilingualism makes society richer,” Fija observes with some fervor. “Japanese people — with their monoracial notion of their country — find that difficult to accept. But here in Okinawa — due to our influences from China, America and the rest of Asia — people embrace a vision of multiculturalism. You don’t want to eat steak every day — you’ll grow bored. What’s best is a champuru (mixture) of tastes.”

Although Fija is passionately optimistic about the islands’ future, like the majority of other Okinawans he steps back from the inevitable conclusion to such a line of reasoning — independence for the islands. Instead of a full breakaway from the rest of Japan, he embraces limited devolution under a Tokyo umbrella.

But would an independent Okinawa be such a bad thing?

Four centuries of Japanese and American misrule have foisted an endless series of tragedies and misfortunes on these tiny islands, leaving them economically, environmentally and emotionally despoiled. In spite of this, Okinawan people have stood up to these injustices with compassion, resilience and nonviolence — three principles upon which any fledgling nation state could be proud to found its future.

Over the next 40 years, the economy of Southeast Asia will be increasingly powered by Chinese investments. That money will bring both great benefits and dangers to the region — but Okinawa has successfully navigated these difficulties before.

In the years prior to 1879, Okinawan people taught themselves how to negotiate and balance their own needs against those of China and Japan — skills which will stand them in good stead from here on in.

Critics are quick to predict that an independent Okinawa would be a failure as a state. But it is difficult to see how a self-ruled Okinawa could make a bigger mess of things than the U.S. and Japan have done. And even if its initial steps were faltering, at least for once any failures would be its own.

By their very definition, anniversaries afford a chance for reflection. May 15 marks four decades since Okinawa returned to Japanese rule — and the time is way overdue to allow Okinawa to decide its future for itself.

After all, they say that life begins at 40.

On May 15, Jon Mitchell will appear on Ryukyu Asahi Broadcasting’s 40th anniversary of reversion documentary “Karehazai o abita shima” (“Defoliant Island”). TV Asahi will feature his research into the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange on Okinawa on May 20’s “The Scoop Special.”

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