A Spate of Protests as Okinawa Marks 50 Years Since US Occupation

On May 14th, hundreds of protestors staged a rally as Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary of the end of U.S. occupation and their reversion to Japan. This continued a trend of Okinawans speaking out against the continued prominence of the U.S. military in the buildup to the anniversary. Many Okinawans, including Governor Denny Tamaki, are demanding a reduction in Okinawa’s heavy military presence amid fears about growing military tensions in the region and the potential for Okinawa to be a target. The current focus of protests is a controversial plan to relocate a U.S. military base from a residential area to a new site in the Henoko area of the prefecture. While most support moving away from the residential area, many object to the idea of a new base being constructed, instead preferring the rest of Japan to share some of the security burden.

A joint statement released on May 23rd by U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio confirmed the continuation of current plans, arguing that the construction of a new facility at Henoko was “the only solution” to avoid using the old facility and writing that both parties were committed to “the steady implementation of the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.”

Jinshiro Motoyama, a protestor who made headlines for carrying out a hunger strike, illustrated the opinion of many Okinawans, telling reporters: “The Japanese government wants there to be a celebratory mood, but that is not possible when you consider that the situation over U.S. bases is still unresolved.” Governor Tamaki, echoing his views, argued that “we need to return to the basic principle of sharing the burden throughout Japan.”

 As such, the issue remains controversial and difficult to solve. While the benefits of relocating the base away from a residential area are clear, this relocation presents the best chance to realign U.S. forces to reduce the burden on Okinawa prefecture. However, the protests in Okinawa indicate that the Japanese and the U.S. governments are not prioritizing the interests of local people, leading many Okinawans to feel like their voices are being marginalized. Even though strategic considerations mean that both national governments are likely to continue with their base plans, without greater effort made in the future to connect with the local community and work on mitigating problems like crime and environmental impact, U.S. actions will continue to face opposition. On a broader level, a clear effort toward reduction of tension in the Asia-Pacific would also go some way towards allaying fears.

Chief among these fears is the dispute over Taiwan. Despite assurances from Chinese officials that they are committed to using peaceful measures to exert greater control over Taiwan, many Okinawans worry that they might be caught up in any conflict, rekindling memories of the Battle of Okinawa in World War 2 that saw hundreds of thousands of Okinawans die. The result of that battle was a U.S. occupation that lasted until 1972, after which Okinawa was returned to Japan. However, a majority of the 50,000 US troops in Japan remain in Okinawa, along with 70% of U.S. military facilities, despite Okinawa only accounting for 0.6% of Japanese land. This turbulent history has contributed to Okinawa having the lowest average income and highest unemployment rates of any of Japan’s 47 prefectures. A 2019 referendum asking Okinawans about whether they supported the construction of the new U.S. base resulted in only 19% voting in favor, compared to 70% voting against. The subsequent refusal by Japan or the U.S. to respect these results means that protests, like those seen in May, continue unabated.

The story of Okinawa illustrates the effects international conflict can have on local communities. In all the talk about instability in the Pacific and rising US-China tensions, the voices of those like the Okinawans can sometimes be drowned out. While considerations of national and international security are likely to overrule local concerns, with the plans for the relocation of the U.S. base looking set to continue, national governments should take the views of the local people and communities they rely on into account more or they risk short-term trading gain for long-term support.