OSAKA – It was apparent at Tuesday’s ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa that the past has not faded into history, with issues related to the U.S. military causing tension and sharp differences of opinion with Tokyo over the prefecture’s role in maintaining regional peace and security.
Whereas the rest of the country considers Aug. 15, 1945, to be the end of the war, Okinawa recalls June 23 of that year as the day when the fighting stopped, and the August date as the beginning of a nearly three-decade U.S. military occupation.
Accommodating the heavy American military presence, Okinawa served as a giant base for the wars in Korea and Vietnam before being returned to Japan in 1972, under the condition that the U.S. military would remain.
Over the decades since, a mixture of resignation and resistance set in, but tensions were always under the surface.
When the Cold War in Europe wound down in the early 1990s, there were expectations that U.S. forces in Japan, especially Okinawa, could also be scaled back. Those hopes were quickly dashed as the U.S. announced it wanted to maintain 100,000 troops in East Asia.
But the September 1995 rape by three U.S. servicemen of an Okinawa schoolgirl ignited strong resistance to the U.S. military presence and set the stage for the planned return of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in April 1996, on the condition that Japan offer another site that could provide the airfield’s critical military functions and capabilities.
Nineteen years later, Okinawans continue to protest that decision. It led to Henoko, in the northern part of the island, being chosen as the location of the replacement facility.
The intensity of the opposition has spiked this year following the election of Takeshi Onaga, who opposes the Henoko plan, as governor last November.
Protesters at Henoko, many of them from outside Okinawa, have clashed with police in front of Camp Schwab and on the waters of Henoko Bay, where the facility is being constructed. Local media polls have consistently shown that the majority of Okinawans oppose the Henoko plan.
At the same time, however, Okinawa has become increasingly concerned about its current and future geopolitical role, given the changing security situation in East Asia. While incursions by Chinese ships into prefectural waters are creating alarm, many residents also see Okinawa’s long history of relations with and geographical proximity to China as the basis for a strategy of peaceful coexistence.
A survey of 1,142 Okinawans by the prefectural government in November and December 2014 gives some idea how they view both the American presence and their Chinese neighbors. A total of 63.7 percent of respondents said Japan-China relations were either important or somewhat important, but 78.6 percent rated U.S.-Japan relations as at least somewhat important.
As to U.S. forces in Japan, about a third of the respondents had at least a somewhat favorable impression, but 45.6 had at least a somewhat unfavorable impression.
Nearly 85 percent said that people in the rest of Japan had little or no understanding of how the base issue was viewed in Okinawa.