Editorial: 40th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan

Today is the 40th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese sovereignty. Despite the hope of people living in Okinawa Prefecture to make their land free of military bases, the situation remains unchanged and Okinawa is still home to 74 percent of the U.S. military bases found in Japan.

The citizens of Hiroshima, who know the horror of the atomic bombing, feel a deep sympathy for the people of Okinawa, site of the only ground battle in Japan during World War II. But how familiar are we, really, with the hard reality involving the military bases there?

Let us take this opportunity to look squarely at the situation and consider the future from the perspective of the Okinawan people.

Modern Okinawa has continually been forced into making sacrifices by the mainland government. The Meiji government annexed the Ryukyu Islands in 1879 and renamed them Okinawa Prefecture. During World War II, 25 percent of the population was killed in the Battle of Okinawa. After the war, Okinawa was occupied and ruled by the United States for 27 years before it was eventually returned to Japan. We need to appreciate that the people of Okinawa have suffered these events one after another.

In 2010, some documents came to light which confirm another troubling incident in Okinawa’s history that successive administrations had kept secret.

It was revealed that a secret pact had been signed by then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, even after the islands were returned to Japan, which permitted the United States to bring nuclear weapons into Okinawa in the event of an emergency. The incident clearly demonstrates that the Japanese government was more concerned about the United States than it was about Okinawa--and there has been no change in this state of affairs since.

The issue of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma perhaps exemplifies this attitude.

When a school girl was raped by U.S. servicemen in 1995, the outcry from Okinawa citizens prompted the United States to pledge to return the Futenma land, explaining that it would seek to reduce the burden of military bases in the prefecture. At the same time, the U.S. government demanded that an alternate site be accepted for a new base in the prefecture, at an offshore location in Henoko in the city of Nago. It is only natural that the people of Okinawa have expressed opposition to this relocation plan.

Now, however, the United States is indicating its intention to continue operating the Futenma air station. At today’s ceremony to commemorate Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is expected to state: “A situation in which the Futenma Air Station becomes fixed in its current location must absolutely be avoided.” He will then have no choice but to call off the Henoko plan, to which there has been strong opposition, and propose a solution which reflects public opinion.

On the U.S. side, some apparently think that the Marines should not necessarily be stationed in Okinawa. On this occasion, we should carefully examine the appropriateness of the entire situation involving American troops in Japan before we simply pass the burden suffered by Okinawa to another location in the country.

We should take seriously the feeling of Okinawa citizens that their prefecture is suffering discrimination.

Okinawa’s economic independence is also a vital issue. During the four decades since its return to Japan, the Japanese government has poured some 10 trillion yen into the prefecture to help develop the region. These funds have also been a form of compensation to ease the burden of the military bases.

Most of this money was funneled into public works projects, yet these investments have not necessarily led to the revitalization of the prefecture. Some people, including those in the construction industry, have benefited, while the prefecture has become more dependent on the central government, not more independent.

Among the residents of mainland Japan, some believe that Okinawa’s economy would fail without the presence of the military bases. But today this concern is unwarranted. The ratio of revenue related to the military bases has dropped to five percent of the prefecture’s gross income; at the time of the handover, the figure was 15 percent. By returning the land now used for the bases to Okinawa, and making good use of that land, the result will be far greater economic impact.

Last week the Japanese government unveiled a new policy to promote the development of Okinawa. The new policy calls for increasing tourism and expanding the information communications and international logistics industries. This policy may provide a suitable direction, but specific measures to advance this agenda have yet to be presented.

As a model case for increasing local autonomy, perhaps Okinawa should be granted more authority and treasury resources. It may be necessary to consider an innovative idea akin to the concept of “one nation, two systems.”

Okinawa, during its rich history as the Ryukyu Kingdom, prospered as a trading center in Asia. Along with steps taken to strengthen its economy, efforts must be made so that Okinawa can become a chain of peaceful islands once again.

(Originally published on May 15, 2012)