China tensions loom as Okinawan Japan marks 50 years since US handover

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.

Now, as China increasingly asserts itself in the Pacific region and tensions mount around neighboring Taiwan – a self-governing island that Beijing considers its territory despite never having ruled it – locals from Okinawa fear that they will once again find themselves on the front line. , especially after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

“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.”

With an eye on China's zero-Covid chaos, Taiwan seizes the opportunity to open up

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 have said they want a commitment to more defense spending, including missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil – missiles that can 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.