Fifty years ago this month, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, the great-uncle of the current prime minister, met with U.S. President Richard M. Nixon in Washington, where they “agreed that the two governments would immediately enter into consultations regarding specific arrangements for accomplishing the early reversion of Okinawa without detriment to the security of the Far East including Japan.” They further agreed to expedite the consultations with a view to accomplishing the reversion during 1972 subject to the conclusion of these specific arrangements with the necessary legislative support.

The reversion would be completed on time, essentially following the formula set down by Sato’s advisers on Okinawan policy earlier that year following the track 1.5 dialogue called the Kyoto Conference: “Seek return in three years, on par with the mainland, without nuclear weapons.”

Okinawa’s reversion wasn’t perfect. American bases were not reduced to as great an extent as hoped for, or eliminated altogether as the more die-hard opponents called for. The Self-Defense Forces developed a presence there by moving onto vacated U.S. bases and a secret agreement allowing the U.S. military to reintroduce nukes in a contingency. But it was welcomed by most people in Okinawa and Japan, and lauded by many in the United States, knowing that the time for the Nansei Islands’ return had long come.

The U.S. seized Okinawa in spring 1945 during the horrific battle there. It immediately began an occupation led by a military government in light of the collapse of existing government institutions on the island and a lack of local qualified leaders.

Subsequently, the U.S. government was granted, under Article 3 of the September 1951 Allied Treaty of Peace with Japan, “the right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of these islands, including their territorial waters.”

The August 1953 decision to return the Amami Islands in the northern Nansei Island chain became a precedent that the U.S. government would return Okinawa and other areas under U.S. control, but the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced its decision in December that year, at the reversion ceremony, to maintain the status quo with regard to the remainder of the islands as well as the Ogasawara Islands and Iwo Jima.

The subsequent return of the latter group in June 1968 gave further hope that Okinawa would indeed be returned at some point.

Pressure nevertheless had been building in Okinawa and Japan throughout the 1950s and 1960s for reversion, but the economic situation of Japan in the early postwar decades and the strategic realities of the Cold War (and Japan’s hesitation to assume a larger role in its own defense, not to mention the region) necessitated, American officials concluded, Okinawa’s remaining under U.S. control. Japan’s interest in Okinawan affairs was high, even if its political will and diplomatic might were low.

There were attempts by the Japanese government to stay involved in Okinawan matters — indeed, it maintained a liaison office in Naha throughout the period. It fell under the Prime Minister’s Office rather than the Foreign Ministry, as was originally planned, because had it been under the Foreign Ministry, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida argued, would imply that Okinawa was a foreign country. (The existence of a Japanese ambassador’s post in Okinawa, established in 1997 by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto at Okinawa’s request, understandably confuses many people today because of this, although the position is “for Okinawan affairs” rather than “to Okinawa.”)

Similarly, the U.S. State Department’s maintenance of a consulate in Okinawa throughout the period beginning in 1952 implied U.S. government recognition that Okinawa was indeed a part of Japan, although the military did not always like it or even the State Department’s presence.

As interactions grew between Okinawa and mainland Japan, including increased aid for Okinawa during the years of the Hayato Ikeda administration (1960-1964), Prime Minister Sato decided to visit Okinawa in August 1965, where he famously declared “until the return of Okinawa to the homeland was achieved, the postwar for Japan would not be over.”

U.S. civilian leaders were well aware of Japan’s concerns and in some cases were ahead of the Japanese government, but getting the military to go along was always the problem. Indeed, although the Far Eastern Command (predecessor to U.S. Forces Japan), which served as the higher command at the time over Okinawa, recommended in late 1951 and early 1952 that Okinawa could be returned at the time the peace treaty went into effect, the Washington-based Joint Chiefs of Staff vetoed that option for the time being in talks with the State Department.

Following Sato’s visit to Okinawa (where U.S. officials edited parts of the speech), the prime minister traveled to Washington, which had already been anticipating discussions on Okinawa’s future, to meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson in November 1967. There the two men agreed, in addition to the return of Ogasawara and Iwo Jima, to reach a decision on the date of the reversion of Okinawa within a few years.

When Nixon succeeded Johnson in January 1969, the same month as the aforementioned Kyoto Conference, the new administration, knowing of Japan’s likely renewed push for the return, began a review of Okinawa policy and agreed in principle to return Okinawa with certain conditions met. The November 1969 summit between Nixon and Sato sealed the deal, with details to be worked out later (the reversion agreement spelling out these details was signed in June 1971 and the reversion itself took place in May 1972).

As seen, the decision, one of the few times in history when land seized in war was returned peacefully, was reached over the course of several steps, but the timing was especially important. Both sides viewed reaching a decision before 1970 — the date the initial 10-year period the treaty was to be in force — as key because protests (linked to the student upheavals and opposition to the Vietnam War) could be expected to disrupt the security treaty’s extension.

This they were able to do, although as we all know, numerous problems remain with the management of the bases and Okinawan affairs in general, causing me and perhaps other observers to wonder where the statesmen have all gone today.

Robert D. Eldridge is a visiting researcher at Okinawa International University’s Institute of Law and Politics and Hosei University’s Institute of Okinawan Studies.

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