Tsuyoshi Sakurai remembers when Japan allocated 1 billion yen to Okinawa in its first financial assistance package in fiscal 1962, when the islands of the Ryukyus were still under U.S. rule.

“Until 1961, the U.S. never allowed us to provide money to Okinawa. They feared that the Okinawans would look toward Tokyo, instead of the U.S., if we provided money,” said Sakurai, 67, who worked on Okinawan issues from 1965 through the early 1980s as an official of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Okinawa Development Agency.

President John F. Kennedy greenlighted the initiation of financial assistance in 1961, and by 1972, when Okinawa reverted back to Japanese rule, the budget allocation had snowballed to 45 billion yen.

In 1969, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon agreed to the reversion, and on May 15, 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japan after 27 years under U.S. administrative control.

“By 1968, the amount that we allocated to Okinawa exceeded that of the budget provided by the U.S., and the U.S. must have lost legitimacy to keep the islands under their rule as Okinawa received more money from the Japanese government,” Sakurai said.

‘Abandoned children’

In the 1960s, sentiment in Okinawa was already moving toward reverting to Japanese rule.

The growing antibase movement spurred the two governments to negotiate on the issue, according to experts and various declassified documents. The fluid international political situation in the midst of the Cold War also played a pivotal role in pushing the U.S. to accept Japan’s longtime plea.

Okinawa, then called Ryukyu, was handed to the U.S. under the memorandum announced by the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in 1946. It was officially separated from Japanese rule by the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed by Japan and 48 other nations on Sept. 8, 1951.

“Okinawans must have felt like abandoned children,” Sakurai said. “Okinawa was virtually under U.S. military control as its high commissioner, the top administrative authority of Ryukyu, had to be a U.S. military officer on the active list.”

The plight of Okinawans is reflected in remarks made in 1963 by Paul Caraway, then U.S. High Commissioner for Ryukyu, who criticized the Ryukyu government for wanting to expand its autonomy.

Okinawa’s autonomy should be no stronger than that of a state in the U.S., he reportedly said.

As Japan moved toward economic expansion in the 1960s, the economic disparity between Okinawa and the mainland grew, fueling resentment among Okinawans.

“The pressures have built up in both Japan and Okinawa to the point where I can see virtually no hope of stalling off beyond the end of next year a decision on the timing of reversion, although the actual return would take place later,” wrote Richard L. Sneider, then minister in charge of Okinawa issues at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, in a report to William Bundy, assistant secretary of state, on Dec. 24, 1968.

The victory of leftist opposition candidate Chobyo Yara in the election for chief executive of the Ryukyu government earlier that year appears to have added to the concerns of the U.S.

“The potential for an incident involving an open clash between demonstrators and American military forces protecting our bases is much higher today than ever before,” Sneider warned in the report.

Shunji Yanai, a former ambassador to the U.S. who was directly involved in negotiations on the reversion of Okinawa, said Japanese officials also told the U.S. that it would be in the U.S. interest to return Okinawa to Japan.

“We told the U.S. that if the U.S. occupation of Okinawa continues, it would fuel anti-American feeling among Japanese people, seriously impacting on the overall Japan-U.S. relationship,” said Yanai, who was an official of the Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau at the time.

A thorn in the U.S. side

According to Masaaki Gabe, a professor at Ryukyu University, the U.S. was also concerned about the possible termination of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which would become possible after 1970 — 10 years after the treaty went into force.

Under the terms of the treaty, either party may give notice a year in advance of its intention to terminate.

“The U.S. State Department feared it may endanger the security treaty with Japan if it insisted too much on maintaining the free use of U.S. bases in Okinawa,” Gabe said. “In the eyes of Tokyo and Washington, the Okinawa issue became too much of a thorn in the side of the Japan-U.S. relationship.”

The changing face of international politics in Asia at that time also appears to have reduced the strategic importance of Okinawa to the U.S. military.

The U.S. began moving toward returning Okinawa after the election in 1968 of Nixon, who called for a reduction of U.S. forces in Vietnam, according to Gabe.

Between around 1968 and early 1969, U.S. bombers frequently departed for Vietnam from Okinawa, but as aerial bombing proved to be ineffective, the U.S. military began to ease its stance on Okinawa, he said. In early 1972, Nixon declared that the U.S. military would pull out of Vietnam.

Documents dated prior to 1968 confirm Gabe’s account.

In 1967, then Prime Minister Sato and President Lyndon Johnson agreed to keep the problem under joint review.

Johnson said he understood Sato’s interest in agreeing on a reversion date within a few years.

However, at that meeting, according to a document later declassified by the U.S. State Department, “the Japanese were advised, more confidentially, that due to the U.S. 1968 election and Vietnam, the U.S. government was unable to give an answer on Okinawa before 1969 at the earliest and that there were both problems of military (e.g. nuclear) requirements and congressional opposition to deal with.”

The U.S. finds a new friend

Yanai, now a professor of law at Chuo University, pointed out that the U.S. rapprochement with China in the early 1970s may also have influenced the U.S. decision at that time.

Henry Kissinger made a surprise visit to China in 1971 as a special envoy of Nixon, paving the way for Nixon’s visit there the following year.

At the time, Japan was unaware of the U.S. policy shift, Yanai said, adding that it is possible that the U.S. was already moving to improve relations with China simultaneously with talks on the Okinawa reversion to Japan.

“In retrospect, the U.S. must have already been aiming to improve ties with China, and it is also related to the end of the Vietnam War,” he said.

“Though the Cold War was still continuing at that time, the underlying international situation surrounding Okinawa was moving in such a direction (of detente).”

As a result, Nixon and Sato reached an agreement in November 1969 to work toward the reversion of Okinawa to Japan by as early as 1972.

Conditional return

According to Yanai, Japan’s policy throughout the negotiations was to win back Okinawa without nuclear weapons and at the so-called homeland level, meaning the U.S. bases on Okinawa would be restricted to the same level as those on the mainland, as outlined in the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

The U.S. agreed to reduce the number of bases within about 1 1/2 years of the 1969 agreement. All nuclear weapons were removed from Okinawa when it was returned to Japan in 1972.

In return, the Japanese government shouldered the $320 million in reversion costs, including the transferal of U.S. assets in Okinawa to Japan and the removal of nuclear weapons.

“Considering the removal of nuclear weapons from Okinawa, we made a highly political decision of paying $320 million to the U.S.,” Yanai said.

Sakurai, who was transferred to the Naha office of the Okinawa Development Agency immediately after the reversion, said various opinion polls at the time showed that the jubilant locals were most happy about the fact that they no longer needed a passport to visit the mainland.

“Many people don’t realize it, but Japan was also a nation divided into two by the tragedy of history,” Sakurai said.

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