NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. - Okinawa on Saturday marked the 73rd anniversary of the end of a World War II ground battle that claimed over 200,000 lives, while Gov. Takeshi Onaga renewed calls to reduce U.S. forces in the prefecture, citing easing tensions with North Korea after the historic Singapore summit.
“Developments toward detente have begun,” Onaga said in his peace declaration during the annual Battle of Okinawa memorial, adding that an ongoing plan to relocate a key U.S. base in the prefecture despite residential opposition “goes against the trend.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also attended the ceremony, said the government will stick to the relocation plan for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in a residential part of Ginowan.
The transfer to the coastal area of Henoko will help “significantly improve safety,” Abe told reporters, adding that reclamation work would start in August.
Nearly 5,000 people attended the ceremony at Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, the site of the final stage of the Battle of Okinawa, and observed a moment of silence at noon.
Around 94,000 civilians, about a quarter of the population, and over 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,500 American troops died in the three-month battle, which began in March 1945.
The names of 58 war dead were newly inscribed on the Cornerstone of Peace in the park this year, bringing the total to 241,525, which includes soldiers and civilians on both sides.
“I remember walking over dead bodies scattered on the roads,” said Naha resident Eiki Higa, 82, who prayed in front of the names of his father and older brothers. “I still don’t know where my brothers died. We should never have a war again.”
Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui is on a four-day visit to Okinawa to attend a separate memorial service on Sunday for the Taiwanese war dead.
At the summit with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Future talks on the nuclear issue could reshape the security landscape in Asia.
The United States and South Korea recently announced they will suspend a major military exercise planned for August.
The U.S. bases in Okinawa were built on land expropriated from islanders during the Occupation that lasted until 1972. Despite accounting for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land mass, Okinawa hosts about 70 percent of the area exclusively used for U.S. military facilities in Japan.
“The issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa is a security issue for Japan as a whole, and the burden should be shared by all Japanese people,” Onaga said in the peace declaration.
The 67-year-old governor, whose four-year term ends in December, underwent surgery in April to remove a cancerous tumor from his pancreas. He appears to have lost weight but his voice was strong, drawing applause from participants.
Safety-minded residents have long called for reducing America’s footprint in Okinawa.
Earlier this month, an F-15 fighter jet from U.S. Kadena Air Base crashed off Okinawa, but no civilians were injured.