Earlier this week, Okinawa Prefecture marked the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty following U.S. occupation. Yet four decades on, and the future of Japan’s southernmost prefecture remains uncertain, with slow progress on key issues. For Okinawans, the harsh reality is that they are still living on occupied territory.
Despite the 1972 transfer, U.S. military bases still occupy almost a fifth of the main Okinawa island, while 75 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa.
For the central government and the U.S. at least, progress seemed to have been made last month on the question of the future of U.S. forces in Japan. Under a new agreement, the U.S. and Japanese governments decided to stick to an existing plan to relocate the controversial U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma to Henoko, Nago, in northern Okinawa by constructing a new sea-based replacement facility off Camp Schwab.
But the deal, which includes the transfer of about 9,000 troops and their dependents to U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, has left many Okinawans cold.For a start the United States is reportedly planning to deploy the MV-22 Osprey vertical take-off and landing transport aircraft to Futenma, in what is an already built-up area, in July. In addition to longstanding concerns over crime, locals also point to concerns over safety and noise pollution from aircraft. Such concerns have only been compounded by a series of accidents involving the Osprey during its development. Indeed, only last month, a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey crashed in Morocco, sparking further safety concerns.
Today’s problems are rooted in a deal reached during the U.S. occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II, when Emperor Hirohito suggested to U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then the post-surrender potentate in Tokyo and protector of the Japanese monarchy, that the U.S. continue occupying Okinawa and other islands in the Ryukyu chain in exchange for keeping the imperial system intact.
MacArthur saw limited Japanese opposition to the U.S. retaining Okinawa because “the Okinawans are not Japanese.” Hirohito’s Okinawa message, and MacArthur’s willingness to retain Okinawa, underscored the reality that the islands were being sacrificed for the purpose of defending the traditional national polity.
But since Hirohito’s death in 1989, his thinking on Okinawa has remained deeply embedded in the minds of mainstream conservative political elites, bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo, including in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is often criticized as being subservient to U.S. diplomacy.