May 15, 2022 has marked the 50th anniversary of the hand over of Okinawa, the East China Sea islands that had been under U.S. occupation since 1945. While Japan’s sovereignty was restored in April 1952, seven years after the end of World War II, Okinawa remained occupied for another 20 years. Okinawa had too much strategic value for the U.S. to be handed over back to Japan easily, located on the the frontline of the Cold War. By the time San Francisco Treaty was signed in September 1951 that stipulated the end of U.S. occupation of Japan, the U.S. was already fighting in the Korean Peninsula for 15 months. In the 1960s, strategic importance of Okinawa rose further as the Vietnam War raged.
Centuries ago, Okinawa had its own kingdom. The islands came under Japanese rule in 1609 after they were invaded by the feudal clan of Satsuma, today’s Kagoshima that is the southernmost mainland prefecture, and became a vassal state. Though being under Satsuma, the Kingdom of Ryukyu continued to send missions to, and traded with the Qing Dynasty of China freely. On this historical background, people in Okinawa have a stronger sympathy with China than the mainlanders have toward the neighboring giant. Following the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s rule, the islands formally became Okinawa Prefecture in 1872 under the new government of Japan.
Toward the end of WWII, Okinawa became one of the fiercest battle grounds of the war. In the intensified battles on the islands for a three months period through late June, approximately 200,000 people were killed, both soldiers and civilians combined, due to fierce resistance by people on the islands. 12,520 American soldiers’ lives were lost. Loss of lives among local Okinawans was estimated at 120,000. Of Okinnawa’s population of 490,000 at that time, one out of four died in the three months period. The battles in Okinawa became a major reason behind President Truman’s decision to drop A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war, as opposed to landing American soldiers on the soil of mainland Japan.
After the 1972 handover, U.S. armed forces continued to occupy large blocks of land in Okinawa. About 70% of U.S. military bases in Japan is concentrated in Okinawa for strategic reasons. Over the last 50 years, minor military bases of relatively modest significance were returned, and today U.S. armed forces occupy a third less land than they did in 1972. Nonetheless, U.S. armed forces still occupy 17% of the land on the big island of Okinawa and major bases continue to operate as they did in the past. Among them, Futenma Airfield in the middle of downtown Ginowan is considered as the most dangerous military base in the world. Though the U.S. and the Japanese governments reached agreement to move the airfield in 2006, the alternative location in the city of Henoko has been vehemently opposed since 2014 by Okinawa’s left-leaning governors and their governments. This is a national security issue on which a governor has no legal right to say anything, but in real life the new base has to have the governor’s blessings. The new airfield is under construction slowly, by reclaiming land off the beach in Henoko. It is said that this construction process puts coral reefs off the beach in danger, drawing heavy criticism.
On the presence of U.S. armed forces, Okinawans are as divided as in battle ground states in the U.S. About half of the population understands the strategic importance of the bases and economic benefits that come with them. They are the people who vote for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The other half fiercely opposes the presence of the bases, for good reasons. Anti-base feelings run high among residents due to crimes committed by American soldiers, including robberies, rapes and even murders, albeit very infrequently. Headlines on crimes fuel sentiments when they do take place once in a long while. “Why does Okinawa always have to suffer, for the sake of the rest of Japan?” they cry. When the opposition Democratic Party of Japan finally won the 2009 general election to oust the LDP, then party leader Yukio Hatoyama promised in Okinawa that Futenma Airfield would be moved to other location outside Okinawa at the very least, if not to other country”. Though Okinawans hailed to the remark, the promise was never carried through under either PM Hatoyama or two other DPJ prime ministered who succeeded him. He had no alternative plan to a new planned airfield in Henoko. These things are always easier said than done. Without credible plans, the left keeps opposing the government’s national security policy in general and and other Okinawa-relates issues, and half the voters support them. To compensate for their ‘suffering’, substantial amount of fund is transferred to Okinawa every year from the Japanese government. As is often the case with transfer payments, however, they do not do much to strengthen the economy.
U.S. military bases’ contribution to Okinawa’s economy has fallen to just over 5% a few years ago, down from 15% in 1972. Okinawa is not as dependent on the Pentagon as it is perceived. Nonetheless, it is not easy to keep its economy going since Okinawa’s location prevents manufacturing industries to take hold on the islands, being far from the rest of Japan not connected by land transportation. The economy is very dependent on the service sector, which doesn’t pay well, and too many people are employed in the informal sector. As a result, Okinawa’s per capita income is the lowest among the 47 prefectures in Japan. Its geographical handicap limits a chance for young Okinawans, leading to a low rate of high school graduates to enter college education. Not surprisingly, many ambitious young people leave Okinawa for the mainland for higher education and better-paying jobs, a trend witnessed not only elsewhere in Japan but also in other parts of the world, such as the EU’s peripheries.
The future remains challenging for Okinawa. Its idyllic beaches are wildly popular among mainland Japanese. In order to attract foreign tourists, however, Okinawa still has to compete with destinations in Asia, where there is no shortage of beautiful beaches. An integrated resort, euphemism for casinos, might have enhanced attraction in a way Singapore did, when a new law was passed in Tokyo several years ago to create such establishments. However, Okinawa’ left-leaning governor only scorned such an idea. In the meantime, strategic importance of Okinawa is once again on the rise, on increasingly assertive China. The Senkaku islands, uninhibited islands in East China Sea, often make headlines on potential Sino-Japanese skirmishes, as Chinese boats breache the contiguous zone. Should the Communist Party decides to invade Taiwan, Okinawa would once again be on the frontline of a major military conflict.
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.