The government on Sunday held its first formal celebration of the day when the San Francisco Peace Treaty ended the allied Occupation, aggravating residents of Okinawa, which was abandoned by the mainland and left under U.S. control until 1972.

The ceremony marking the 1952 enforcement of the treaty, which was signed in 1951, was held at Kensei Kinenkan Hall in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. It was attended by Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko and some 300 VIPs, mainly lawmakers, bureaucrats, Supreme Court justices and prefectural officials.

Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima snubbed his invitation to the event and instead sent Vice Gov. Kurayoshi Takara in his place.

“I would like to commemorate today as an important milestone to remember the path that Japan walked on,” Abe told those gathered for the event, which triggered protests in both the capital and in Okinawa Prefecture.

Politicians in Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party apparently organized the event to make the most of the date in 1952 when Japan was formally released from U.S. control to bolster nationalist sentiment favoring their legal agenda. On April 28 last year, the party unveiled a draft proposal to rewrite the Constitution.

During campaigning for the general election last December, the LDP pledged to organize the ceremony to woo the nation’s more nationalistic and conservative voters.

But the party was caught off guard by the negative reaction from Okinawa, highlighting the huge gap in historical perspective between the mainland and the people of Okinawa.

Acknowledging the anger, Abe used a portion of his speech to emphasize that Japan should never forget the hardships endured by the Okinawans, who suffered severely from the fierce shelling and ground battles in the closing days of the Pacific War and remained under U.S. occupation until 1972.

“I’d like to encourage people, in particular younger generations, to deeply empathize with the hardships the people of Okinawa went through,” Abe said.

After the ceremony, Okinawa Vice Gov. Takara told reporters that Abe’s perspective on the prefecture differed from the actual experience of the people, but commended him for “confronting Okinawa-related issues” and said he could “accept and understand” the speech, according to Kyodo News. Takara didn’t elaborate.

Takara also said that Nakaima declined to attend the sovereignty ceremony “because of the complex sentiments” of the Okinawan people, Kyodo News reported.

Citizens’ groups held rallies in Okinawa and Tokyo to protest the sovereignty ceremony, which honors a day that most Okinawans regard as a day of disgrace, not celebration.

About 200 people gathered at a hall in the Hibiya district for a rally organized by an antimilitary group of landowners resisting U.S. bases in Okinawa.

“April 28 is considered the day when Japan, with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, recovered its independence while keeping Okinawa in the prison of the U.S. military,” said Norio Motomura, an activist from Okinawa.

The central government “sold off Okinawa to the U.S. military” with the peace treaty, Motomura said, adding the central government has ignored “the public will” of Okinawans calling for the removal of the U.S. military.

Participants then marched from Hibiya Park to the Shinbashi district.

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