Japan’s Okinawa marks half a century since US handover as regional tensions rise

Tourists walk on the street in the central district of Miyako island, Okinawa prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

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TOKYO, May 15 (Reuters) – Japan’s island chain of Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary of the end of U.S. occupation and its return to Japan on Sunday with ceremonies and celebrations amid growing concern as to its proximity to an increasingly assertive China.

Okinawa, a chain of tropical islands off southwestern Japan, much closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, suffered massive devastation during World War II. Two months of bloody battles between American and Japanese forces left up to a third dead. Nearly 30 years of American dominance followed.

On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan in what was seen as a hopeful step forward from the painful legacy of war. But today they still host the majority of US military bases in Japan, a diabolical bargain that has provided jobs but also stoked concerns about crime and military casualties.

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Now, as China increasingly asserts itself in the Pacific region and tensions rise around neighboring Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, Okinawans fear they may once again find themselves more on the front line, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Read more

“These are small islands,” said a protester on Miyako Island, home to Japan’s newest military base, declining to be named.

“Building a military base will not protect them but rather make them a target for attack.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will participate in Okinawa handover commemoration ceremonies, while Emperor Naruhito will comment via video conference from Tokyo.

Okinawans have long resented having to bear the disproportionate burden of accommodation bases, and the issue has at times sparked mass protests. Of 812 Okinawan residents polled by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56 percent said they strongly oppose US bases; only a quarter of the 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.

Tensions are likely to rise as lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have said they want a commitment for more defense spending, including missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil – missiles that could be deployed in Okinawa. The country is revising its national security strategy this year.

Current Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki would like to see the base’s footprint reduced, but plans to move some bases off Okinawa, including sending Marines to Guam, are moving slowly.

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Reporting by Elaine Lies Editing by Mark Heinrich

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