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When Okinawa Prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972, 3,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel were stationed on the prefecture’s main island.

Fifty years on, the number is now about 8,000, with the Air Self-Defense Force’s F15 fighters and the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s patrol aircraft also busy monitoring Chinese activities. A Ground Self-Defense Force missile unit is also stationed in the area.

Even though about 70% of local residents are opposed to a new military base in the Henoko district in Nago, the GSDF and the U.S. Marines made a secret deal to station the GSDF’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade there.

There is also a plan to deploy the GSDF’s ground-to-ship missile unit in Okinawa to defend U.S. military bases in the prefecture.

In half a century, the main island has become a major military hub for Japan and the U.S.

Takashi Kishimoto, 59, an executive at the Okinawa Peace Action Center, a successor to a group that opposed SDF deployment in 1972, says that people should be aware of the military buildup in Okinawa throughout the nation, not just in the prefecture.

“It’s not that (parts of) the SDF nationwide were deployed in the southwestern region. They’ve all remained as is,” said Kishimoto. “In case of a military conflict, Japan will be under the command of the U.S. military.”

Kishimoto’s group has been opposing the increase in F15 fighters and the missile deployment by the SDF. But it has been difficult for them to focus on just the SDF, since they have been busy opposing the construction of new U.S. bases, including Henoko and a helipad in Higashi village, he said.

And now, the SDF has deployed to remote islands and islets of the Ryukyu Arc of southwestern Japan.

“The issue of the SDF has been slipping from people’s minds, even if it’s the other military force in Okinawa,” said Kishida.

Looking back, voices of opposition against the SDF diminished over the years as the troops became associated with disaster relief and helping transport emergency patients, said Kishida.

With the accumulated number of Okinawa-born SDF personnel from 1972 to 2019 reaching 9,130, more local residents have family members and next of kin who are or were in the SDF.

But still, there have been various accidents involving the SDF that could threaten the lives of the people of Okinawa Prefecture or its environment. In February, a flame retardant, which includes a pollutant called perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, flowed out of the ASDF’s Naha base.

Foam from the pollutant reached the gate of Masayuki Sokei, 67, who lives in Naha.

“At the time, my grandchild was playing in front of my house. And there is an afterschool activities club nearby,” he said.

Sokei asked the ASDF to clean up the area, which they did four months later. They turned down the request to conduct health checkups on local residents.

Sokei owns some of the land used for the base in Naha, owning about 1,550 square meters handed down from his ancestors. His father, a soldier who fought during World War II, understood the tragedy of war and was opposed to having the land used for military bases.

“But he was aware of the atmosphere in the conservative area, and agreed to renew the leasing contract,” he said.

“I don’t want to have the land used for something that could lead to war.”

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published Dec. 20.

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