Forty-five years since the end of the postwar U.S. rule of Okinawa and its reversion to Japan, there seems to be a deepening schism between the national government and the southernmost prefecture. Okinawa remains host to a disproportionately heavy presence of American military bases under the security treaty with the United States. The administration of Gov. Takeshi Onaga and Tokyo are in a protracted standoff over construction of a new airfield in the Henoko area of Nago, Okinawa Island, to take over the functions of the U.S. Marines’ Futenma air station — with the promise of closing Futenma only if an alternate facility is built in Okinawa, symbolizing the government’s policy over U.S. bases in the prefecture. If the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is serious about its stated desire to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. bases, it should rethink its construction of the substitute facility in Henoko.
Chobyo Yara, who led the Okinawans’ movement for reversion of their land and in 1968 became the first elected head of the government of the Ryukyu Islands under the U.S. administration, pursued an ideal of “building a peaceful and affluent Okinawa without nuclear weapons or military bases.” That was based on local residents’ harsh experiences during and after World War II. The Battle of Okinawa, which raged from March to June 1945, was the only World War II ground battle fought in Japan in which residents were exposed to the terror of combat. Some 150,000 residents of Okinawa, or about a quarter of the population, were killed.
What followed were 27 years of postwar U.S. rule of Okinawa, during which the U.S. high commissioner — a position held by U.S. Army lieutenant generals — wielded enormous powers, including appointing the head of the Ryukyu Islands government and promulgating ordinances. By means of a land expropriation ordinance, the U.S. requisitioned large tracts of land for military bases. It was only in 1968 that Okinawa residents won the right to elect the head of their local administration.
When Okinawa was returned to Japanese rule on May 15, 1972, Yara became the first governor of post-reversion Okinawa Prefecture. But the reality surrounding the prefecture continues to be far removed from the ideal that he pursued. At that time, bases solely used by the U.S. occupied 27,894 hectares of Okinawa. As of this January, the total area was still 18,609 hectares, accounting for 15 percent of Okinawa Island. However, the U.S. bases in Okinawa today account for 70.6 percent of such facilities across Japan, up from 58.7 percent in 1972 — meaning that the pace of reduction of U.S. bases in Okinawa has been slower than in the rest of the country. Okinawa, which accounts for a mere 0.6 percent of Japanese territory, continues to host a lopsidedly heavy U.S. military presence.
On the day of the 1972 reversion, Yara declared that he would strive to build a peaceful, bright and affluent Okinawa Prefecture on the basis of local autonomy. At the same time he warned that problems over the U.S. presence may continue and that the people of Okinawa may face new difficulties. Unfortunately, Yara’s premonitions are proving correct. Despite the continuing opposition of current Gov. Onaga, the Abe administration recently began work to reclaim land off Henoko for the Futenma replacement facility. Even though Onaga’s election in 2014 on a campaign promise to halt the Henoko project and the losses of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party candidates in the Lower House election that year demonstrate local opposition to the Henoko plan, the administration has forged ahead by overriding the governor’s moves to thwart the plan in a court battle.
On the 45th anniversary of the reversion last Monday, Onaga noted that Okinawans continue to suffer from accidents and crimes involving the U.S. military, and that the large footprint of the bases continue to be the biggest impediment to economic development. He said the Okinawa people’s wish for a significant reduction in the base burden faces a harsh reality. On May 5, the 70th anniversary of the postwar Constitution taking effect, the governor said that Okinawans, having gone through a history filled with suffering on account of the Battle of Okinawa and the U.S. rule, truly appreciate the importance of peace and the inviolability of human rights. Decades after the reversion, Okinawa remains under the shadow of the U.S. security alliance — much more so than the rest of Japan.
Instead of taking steps that would antagonize the residents of Okinawa and irreparably damage their relationship with Tokyo, Abe should pursue policies that would turn Okinawa into a hub for peace-building and interchange for the Asia-Pacific region, as Onaga called for.