CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – While the Japanese mainland celebrated Sunday, Okinawans staged a protest rally over the national 61st anniversary of the country receiving its postwar independence through a treaty with the United States.
Many here see Tokyo’s decision in 1952 to allow the continued U.S. occupation of Okinawa while brokering mainland Japan’s freedom as a betrayal – a move that led to generations of unrest and political friction over the large foreign military presence on the island that continues to complicate U.S.-Japan relations today.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative elected last fall, stoked anger from Okinawans and the prefectural government by deciding to mark the anniversary, which island residents call a “day of humiliation.” Despite a public statement by the administration calling for the nation to remember Okinawan suffering, the island’s prefectural assembly recently cast a vote unanimously opposing the Sunday's anniversary celebration.
“Prime Minister Abe woke a sleeping dog” and rekindled sorrow and disappointment, said Takeshi Onaga, mayor of Naha, Okinawa’s capital.
Thousands gathered at a seaside park Sunday for a rally against what many residents see as the island’s U.S. military plight at the hands of Tokyo. On Thursday, Onaga and more than 600 people gathered in Naha for a forum on the anniversary celebration of the San Francisco Treaty, which officially ended the war with Japan, granted the country its sovereignty - except for Okinawa and two other smaller island areas - and laid out a plan for war reparations.
The U.S. occupation and government administration of Okinawa continued until 1972, when it was returned to Tokyo’s control. It has since remained the base for the majority of U.S. military forces stationed in Japan, including one of the largest air bases in the world and Marine jungle-warfare training grounds.
Most recently, Okinawa has been locked in a bitter dispute with the central government over its agreement with the U.S. to build a new Marine Corps air station on the island to replace the controversial Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which will be home base for squadrons of the newly deployed MV-22 Osprey aircraft. The hybrids’ first deployment last fall triggered large public demonstrations that threated to shut down Futenma.
“Moving Futenma operations to Henoko, deployment of the Ospreys -- the Tokyo government keeps saying that it will make a sincere effort to obtain understanding from Okinawa,” Onaga said. “But when the prime minister decided to celebrate the day, the suffering of Okinawa must have been completely out of his mind.”
Shortly after the Abe administration announced the celebration plan, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said Okinawa’s ongoing struggles over the nearly seven-decade U.S. military presence were originally created by the decision to cede its sovereignty in the San Francisco Treaty.
“At that point, Okinawa was severed from the rest of Japan and cast under U.S. military administration,” he said. “The problems on Okinawa today are all stemming from there.”
Nakaima must now decide whether to grant Tokyo permission to reclaim land along the Okinawa coast to build the new Marine Corps air station. The governor is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.
Even before the celebration Sunday, many Okinawans opposed the replacement of Futenma. The move by the Abe administration could help to kindle that public resistance.
Mitsuko Kadekaru, 57, a resident of Tomigusuku who attended the Naha forum, said human rights on Okinawa were taken lightly during the war and postwar occupation period and that the national celebration of the treaty anniversary brought back feelings of suffering.
“It was like reopening old wounds,” she said.