NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – People in Okinawa more or less feel Japan has continued to betray them, according to local officials.
“There is no safe place around here,” said Kiyoshi Nakamura, head of the Ginowan district of the Okinawa city of Ginowan, looking up at a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor airplane flying over a residential area.
The United States deployed Osprey aircraft to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in densely populated Ginowan, in 2012. Local people no longer look up when the aircraft fly overhead because the flights have become part of everyday life.
Nakamura, 57, was born and raised near the Futenma base, which was built in 1945. He rarely paid attention to the base until the crash of a large U.S. military helicopter into a building at Okinawa International University near his home on Aug. 13, 2004.
The crash prompted Nakamura to begin paying keen attention to the base.
Triggered by the gang rape of a local schoolgirl by two U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman in 1995, anger erupted among residents and calls for an Okinawa without military bases grew stronger. In 1996, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on the return of the Futenma base site to Japan.
However, the return has been contingent upon completion of an airstrip to replace Futenma farther north on Okinawa Island, near Marine Corps Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of the city of Nago.
Nineteen years after the accord, the return of Futenma has yet to happen as strong opposition slows efforts to build the Nago replacement base.
“We won’t be free from dangers without the return (of the Futenma site),” Nakamura said.
Preparations have been underway to relocate the Futenma base operations to the less-populated Henoko coastal area, though locals are fighting the move.
“We will never allow the relocation,” stressed Yoshitami Oshiro, a 74-year-old member of the Nago Municipal Assembly.
Oshiro, who has been involved in various peace movements since his youth, said people in Okinawa have been repeatedly betrayed by the central government.
After the end of the fierce Battle of Okinawa near the end of World War II, the U.S. forces forcibly expropriated land in the prefecture, expelling those who resisted eviction at bayonet point. Locals called the method “bayonets and bulldozers.”
While Okinawa was separated from Japan under the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, on May 15, 1972, Okinawa reverted back to Japanese rule but with a large portion of its land remaining occupied by U.S. bases.
Oshiro and other local people were shocked and saddened again in 1979 it emerged that Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, had in September 1947 asked William Sebald, a U.S. political adviser to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied Powers at the General Headquarters, that the U.S. would continue the military occupation of Okinawa and other islands in the Ryukyu Islands chain.
Although the request was reportedly made out of concern about the then perceived communist threat, Okinawa people concluded they had been abandoned by their home country. “We were deeply chagrined because we thought we had been sold,” Oshiro recalled.
Okinawa is “like a colony” used as a “sacrifice stone” by the Japanese government during World War II and has been forced to accept a large number of U.S. bases since the end of the war, Oshiro said.
Although Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land area, it hosts some 74 percent of the total acreage of all U.S. military facilities in the country.
Given the heavy burdens Okinawa people have borne over the presence of U.S. bases, the planned Futenma replacement within the prefecture is unacceptable to many. Results of the mayoral election in Nago and the Okinawa gubernatorial contest in 2014 reflected strong popular opposition to the relocation.
But the government is pushing ahead with the plan, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it is the “only solution” for ending the use of the Futenma base.
“The government doesn’t consider Okinawa part of Japan,” Oshiro said. The government forces Okinawa to continue hosting U.S. bases despite popular opposition because of its discriminatory policy, he said.
Academic and other movements looking at the possibility of Okinawa’s independence from Japan therefore are emerging among local people.
“Military bases should be eliminated so that Okinawa can be free in Japan,” Oshiro said. “Then, let Okinawa play the role of supporting Japan as a pacifist nation.”
Photographer Satoru Kuba, 49, has taken pictures of U.S. fighter jets taking off from and landing at the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the U.S. Air Force’s biggest base in East Asia, for a quarter of a century.
Whenever North Korea shows signs of conducting a nuclear test or firing a missile, reconnaissance aircraft with advanced surveillance capabilities arrive at Kadena from the U.S. and fly toward the Korean Peninsula, according to Kuba. “Okinawa, neither distant from nor close to the Korean Peninsula, is a keystone,” he said.
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