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We often think of the anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa in the context of May 15. This is correct as that was the date when the United States returned to Japan administrative rights over Okinawa in 1972.

However, the realization of Okinawa’s return was based on an earlier reversion agreement, as well as a presidential decision before that, to return Okinawa to Japan.

The decision itself was made in November 1969 at a summit meeting between Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Representatives from the two countries subsequently signed the agreement on June 17, 1971. This makes it the 50th anniversary of the signing.

Negotiations for the reversion agreement began officially on June 5, 1970, at a meeting between Foreign Minister Kiichi Aichi and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Armin H. Meyer. The negotiations took more than a year to complete and continued right up until the signing. This is because of the complexities of the then-26-year U.S. administration of Okinawa and base structure there, as well as U.S. regional security commitments.

The reversion agreement itself was nine articles in length, in addition to numerous side agreements, some secret but whose contents are now known through the publication of memoirs, journalistic accounts and academic research.

The agreement was primarily negotiated, often daily, by members of the U.S.-Japan Consultative Committee in Tokyo, led by Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Sneider on the U.S. side and Bunroku Yoshino, Japan’s director general of the Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau. The involvement and agreement of different agencies, departments and ministries were necessary depending on the issues discussed necessitating more time for more difficult problems.

Within Okinawa itself, on the ground, preparations for the smooth transfer of power from U.S. to Japanese administration were handled by the Preparatory Commission, which was the successor to the Advisory Committee to the High Commissioner, U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands.

It first met in March 1970 and was led by a civil administrator, Robert Fearey (who assisted John Foster Dulles 20 years before that in negotiating the Treaty of Peace with Japan), and Ambassador Jiro Takase. By November that year, the commission had developed a plan to phase down U.S. responsibilities in favor of Japan’s assumption of these obligations, such as land management, postal and telecommunications, immigration, quarantines, customs, etc.

Security matters were also discussed and arrangements for transferring responsibilities for the defense of the Nansei Islands were finalized in a separate understanding known as the Kubo-Curtis Agreement (approved on June 29, 1971) at the 13th meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee. Under its terms, Japan was to assume the major defense role by July 1, 1973.

Most of the difficult problems had been resolved by late spring 1971, and on May 4, Kazuo Chiba, director of the Foreign Ministry’s First North American Division, met with Okinawa’s chief executive, Chobyo Yara, to explain the negotiations (of which the diplomat was particularly involved and about whom a movie was made). At the end of the following week, Aichi provided an interim report on the negotiations before the Diet.

On June 9, Aichi and U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, who were in Paris attending the 10th Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, met to discuss pending matters (including the disposition of the Senkaku Islands) and agreed to do the signing on June 17 by satellite. Japan’s leaders, including Aichi, subsequently gathered that evening in Tokyo (with the participation of an American delegation), while U.S. leaders, including Rogers, gathered in Washington (during the morning hours with Japan’s ambassador to the United States, Nobuhiko Ushiba, in attendance). Okinawan leaders, for their part, watched from Naha.

Reflecting disappointment with the agreement, including the continuation of U.S. bases in Okinawa, Yara, who had made a final appeal to Sato and Aichi on May 21 about the bases and other aspects relating to the agreement, did not attend the signing.

According to his diary, he had asked on several occasions not to be invited in order to avoid having to publicly say “no,” but he was nevertheless asked by the Japanese government on June 14 to come to Tokyo. Anticipating this, ruling leftist parties in Okinawa, as well as anti-base groups, the teachers’ association and labor unions, demanded Yara’s nonparticipation. Their representatives told him that if he did try to attend, they “would have to take physical action to obstruct him.” Even if he were able to depart, he was concerned about the chaos that would occur in his absence.

Yara was elected chief executive in 1968 in the first popular “gubernatorial” election thanks to these extremist groups, but he himself was more practical. An educator, he had long been involved with the reversion movement (serving as its leader early on) and had developed close relations with members of the Sato government as chief executive.

When relaying his decision to fellow Okinawan (and former president of Waseda University) Nobumoto Ohama, who was serving as Sato’s brain for Okinawan affairs, Yara told him on the morning of June 16, “There are many people dissatisfied with the contents of the agreement. (Rather than attending the ceremony,) my job is to help the people in Okinawa calmly deal with the agreement to the best of my ability. My going to Tokyo to attend the ceremony will have the opposite effect.”

Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Ryuji Takeuchi called on Yara that same day, and after explaining the contents of the finalized agreement, relayed Aichi’s request to attend the ceremony, but Yara had to refuse. “I felt bad about it, but I had no choice,” he noted in his diary that day.

Tears welled up in his eyes, however, as Yara watched the signing ceremony the next day on television. He was happy and relieved that reversion was finally happening, saying “I was deeply worried about the future,” especially the continued existence of the bases (only 2.5% were to be reduced).

Reversion, albeit 20 years late in this writer’s opinion, was clearly a good thing, and the agreement, while problematic, did an admirable job balancing the interests of Japan and the United States, as well as the region as a whole. Okinawa public opinion also quickly came to positively assess reversion to Japan in the regular surveys that took place every five or 10 years following the move.

But as before, base frictions continue to challenge the relationship. Yara, who stepped down as governor in 1976 after two terms, hinted at this at the time: “We were opposed to the peace treaty because it separated Okinawa from Japan. We opposed U.S. bases that continued in Okinawa as a result of the peace treaty. As such, we will continue to oppose the bases following the reversion agreement.”

The two governments do not seem to have anticipated the degree of opposition that would continue, however, toward the bases. Greater foresight by the two governments was thus necessary then, as is a more proactive approach by them today regarding the bases.

Robert D. Eldridge, Ph.D., is the author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” and “The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute” (both from Routledge) and a former political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa.

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