Former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, a noted historian and survivor of the Battle of Okinawa, died Monday of pneumonia and respiratory failure at a hospital in Naha, his office said. He had turned 92 the same day.
Ota, head of the Okinawa International Peace Research Institute, served as governor from 1990 to 1998. He was governor when U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale agreed with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in April 1996 to return the land used by the Futenma air base in Ginowan, central Okinawa.
The accord was aimed at reducing the U.S. military’s footprint in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of its military facilities in Japan.
More than 20 years later, however, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma remains standing amid fierce opposition to a bilateral relocation plan that was aimed at moving it to a new base in Nago.
“Mr. Ota lived through a turbulent time, tackling base-related issues and promoting economic measures for Okinawa,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters. “From the bottom of my heart I pray his soul may rest in peace.”
Born on Kumejima Island in Okinawa Prefecture in 1925, Ota was drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1945 and witnessed the fierce fighting with the U.S. military and the island’s brutal destruction in the closing days of World War II.
After the war, he became a professor at the University of the Ryukyus and a noted historian on the Battle of Okinawa and the postwar Occupation of the prefecture that lasted until 1972.
In 1995 he made headlines nationwide when he refused to sign an administrative document necessary for local owners to renew leases for land used by U.S. military bases.
At the time, anti-U.S. sentiment in Okinawa was running high after a 12-year-old local girl was raped by three U.S. servicemen.
Ota, viewed as a leader of the anti-U.S. military movement in Okinawa, was staunchly opposed to relocating Futenma within the prefecture, saying it would create a powerful new base in Nago and only strengthen the U.S. military presence.
In 2001 he won an Upper House seat running on the proportional representation segment of the Social Democratic Party’s ticket. He retired from politics in 2007.
In 2013, Ota established the Okinawa International Peace Research Institute in Naha. The center collects and studies historical materials about wars.
After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched his second Cabinet in December 2012, the central government stepped up its push to complete the Futenma relocation project, including preparations for landfill work off the coast, which has drawn the ire of the Okinawa Prefectural Government and protesters.
Ota led the project to build the Cornerstone of Peace in Itoman, a war memorial of black stones on which the names of more than 241,000 people who died in the Battle of Okinawa and other conflicts, including American soldiers, are engraved.