June 2022

Fifty years after reversion, Okinawa is trapped in a different occupation

Ryukyu Shimpo

The Battle of Okinawa in 1945 caused massive devastation and killed more than 241,000 people. Their names are inscribed in stone at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, near my home. Okinawa was subsequently placed under US control for 27 years until its reversion to Japan in 1972. On 15 May, the prefecture marked the 50th anniversary of its return to Japanese sovereignty.

For much of its long history, the independent Ryukyu Kingdom juggled its dual relations with China and Japan until Japan invaded 1879. The Amami islands to the north were incorporated into Kagoshima, while the other Ryukyu islands formed the new prefecture of Okinawa. 

The islands were and are still famed for their performing arts, in particular their folk songs. The reversion anniversary brought to mind “Jidai no Nagare” (The Passage of Time), a song associated with the islands’ most revered traditional singer and sanshin player, Rinsho Kadekaru (1920~1999). Its opening lines (in English translation) are:

From rule by China to rule by Yamato 

From rule by Yamato to rule by America   

How astonishing the changes in this Okinawa of ours! 

Claiming rule by America was wrong

Rule by Yamato returned 

Which is better? One never knows for sure  

One thing we do know for sure is that reversion to Yamato (Japan) promised many things that have not come to pass, not least the hope that US bases would finally disappear and the land that hosted them returned to Okinawans, and that the islanders would be treated as equal citizens by the Japanese government. None of this has happened so, in a sense, the second world war still isn’t over for Okinawa.

In 1971, the year before reversion, the government of the Ryukyu Islands asked Japan to make Okinawa a peaceful island with no US bases. But half a century later, around 70% of the American bases in Japan are in Okinawa, whose islands occupy just 0.6% of the country’s total land area. Many of these military bases were built on land taken at gunpoint by the US occupation forces. 

Not much has changed since then, only the colonial ruler is Japan, not the US. Military accidents and incidents, crimes, and environmental degradation, including the dumping of toxic chemicals, have all continued with the tacit approval of a Japanese government that has no intention of seriously relieving Okinawans of their burden. Instead, Okinawa has been turned into a destination for Japanese holidaymakers, with numerous building projects and resort hotels that benefit visitors more than the islanders.

Meanwhile, the proposed closure of the sprawling Futenma air base and its relocation to Henoko – where construction work will destroy much of the local marine environment – has become a long-running saga seemingly with no end. This, despite daily protests at the site and a 2018 prefecture-wide referendum that showed most Okinawans opposed the relocation.

A newer version of “Jidai no Nagare” continues:

Cars ran on the right before

Now they run on the left

Confusion reigns forever

Long ago the hills and forests were ours 

Where we picked oranges freely

Now as bases they are American

Long ago the seas were ours too

We could have a dip at any time

Now the resorts keep us out

Change after change is our fate

But bases on the island never change

When will things become better?

It would be overly optimistic to imagine that the situation will improve anytime soon. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that people on these islands are not yet calling for independence, since the prospects of achieving any kind of autonomy under Japanese rule are extremely bleak.

Regaining independence has until recently been almost a taboo subject in Okinawa. For younger people, the Battle of Okinawa and its horrendous death toll is a relic from the murky past. They have grown up living alongside the bases and the American war machine that occupies them. A recent survey reported in The Okinawa Times, however, found that 29% of respondents were “sympathetic” to the idea of independence.

There is an element of Stockholm Syndrome in all this. Many Okinawans fear the unknown of going it alone and live in hope that they will somehow be treated better by their oppressors. There is, however, more enthusiasm for independence among some Uchinanchu (Okinawan)-Americans in the Ryukyu diaspora, judging by what I read daily on social media. Distance has perhaps given them a perspective that those closer to reality don’t have. Many also place Okinawa’s plight in the broader struggle among indigenous peoples worldwide. 

A survey of Okinawans conducted in April by Kyodo News, and reported in The Okinawa Times, found that 94% of Okinawans thought reversion to Japan was a good thing. However, 55% were dissatisfied with the way things have gone in the 50 years since then, their main concern that there are still too many US bases. An overwhelming 83% felt that the base situation was unfair to Okinawa compared with other prefectures. Online polls carried out in May similarly found support for reversion in both Okinawa and mainland Japan. However, 61% in Okinawa thought the US base burden on the island was unfair, while in nationwide polls only 40% thought so, showing a marked difference between Okinawa and Japan. 

Okinawa’s governor, Denny Tamaki, used the anniversary to present his proposals for the island to the Japanese government, with a drastic reduction in US bases top of the list. He also asked Tokyo to acknowledge and draw on Ryukyu’s rich history as an independent kingdom with centuries of cultural diversity. 

Okinawan media carried daily coverage of reversion in the run-up to the anniversary. The reports offered various perspectives, but both of the main local newspapers, The Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo, while generally in favour of reversion, were heavily critical of Japan’s subsequent betrayal of Okinawa.

Heavy rain fell on the day of the anniversary – a repeat of the weather exactly 50 years earlier. The rain in 1972 is commonly regarded in Okinawa as representing the tears of the island people at all the broken promises from Japan. This time, anti-base peace activists gathered to protest outside Okinawa Convention Centre in Ginowan, where the commemoration ceremony was held. Inside, the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, did his best to avoid controversy and pledged once again to “make utmost efforts to ease Okinawa’s burden”. He obviously has no intention of doing anything of the sort. 

While Japan celebrates the return of Okinawa, emotions are much more ambivalent here on the islands. Decades of protests, referendums and opinion polls reflecting local anger are routinely ignored or dismissed by Tokyo. Nothing gets better, only worse. Fifty years on, the fate of Okinawa remains unsettled. The newspaper headlines are the same. And all the time, Rinsho Kadekaru’s song continues to resonate among the island’s people.

John Potter is a professor (retired) at Kogakkan University, Mie Prefecture, and now lives in Okinawa. He is the author of The Power of Okinawa, about the region’s music.