50 Years after America Relinquished Control over Okinawa, Has It Truly Become Part of Japan?

After being occupied by the United States military at the end of World War II and ruled by the U.S. after the war, Okinawa was returned to Japan on May 15, 1972. This year marks 50 years since the Reversion Agreement.

Having been the site for a tragic ground war and then ruled by another country for 27 years, Okinawa has a painful history unlike any other region of Japan. Even now, half a century on from its reversion to Japan, these scars have yet to heal.

‘Snow Will Fall’

“When Okinawa returns to Japan, snow will fall.” So went the rumor that spread among Okinawan elementary school students a year or two before the reversion.

Kazuhiro Shinjo, 58, an editor who has written a book about post-reversion Okinawa and was born and raised in Naha, remembers the rumor well.

“We were taught about the reversion at school, but children don’t really understand what it means to ‘return to Japan.’ We interpreted it the way children would, thinking that the island would attach itself to Kyushu, and that if that was true then it would probably snow.”

The people of Okinawa campaigned passionately under the American regime to rejoin the rest of Japan, regarding reversion to be an “escape from the tyrannical rule of the United States.”

In negotiations with the United States over reversion, the Japanese government argued for an Okinawa that would match the mainland and be without nuclear weapons. The idea of equality with the mainland was a condition relating to the adoption of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and Okinawa’s administration, but to the people of Okinawa, they were words of hope. The vision of snowfall was born out of these expectations.

Increased Concentration of Military Bases

Fifty years have now passed. Did Okinawa ever become the same as the mainland?

According to documents held by Okinawa Prefecture, the average income per person in Okinawa was 59.5% of the national average in 1972, the year of reversion. By 2018, this had jumped to 74.8%. However, in prefectural income rankings, Okinawa is last almost every year. The echoes of U.S. administration policy decisions can be felt even today: at the time, the U.S. heavily emphasized imports, which stifled the growth of Okinawa’s manufacturing industry.

There is also, of course, the issue of U.S. military bases. The area covered by U.S. military facilities in Okinawa Prefecture was 27,893 hectares in the year of the reversion. This had shrunk to 18,484 hectares by 2020.

However, in terms of concentration, the percentage of U.S. military facilities across the whole of Japan that are based in Okinawa rose steeply from 58.7% in 1972 to 70.3% in 2020. Compared to the mainland, there has been no progress on the reduction of military bases, with there instead being an increased concentration in Okinawa.

The domineering behavior of the U.S. military remains unchanged. Even when its aircraft and helicopters crash, it will not even permit prefectural police to investigate. Last year, it was revealed that the U.S. military had released chemicals suspected to be carcinogenic into the sewage system. Every time the people of Okinawa read such news, they are reminded that they are not, after all, the same as people on the mainland.

Incomprehension and Indifference

The Japanese government is currently forcing through the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko in Nago. There is also no effort to revise the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which grants special treatment to U.S. forces. Time and time again Okinawans have spoken out. Time and time again they have been ignored.

So what do people on the mainland think? In response to protests by local residents about the construction of a U.S. military helicopter base in Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture on Oct. 16, a riot police officer who had been sent from the mainland to assist with security referred to the local people as “the natives.”

In January of the same year, snow (sleet) was recorded for the very first time on the main island of Okinawa. The idea of what it would be to join Japan, as conceived by children, became reality. Though rather than citizens on the mainland feeling a sense of unity with Okinawans, they seem to be drifting further away, blinded by incomprehension and indifference.

Have residents on the mainland been able to deliver this dream that Okinawans had 50 years ago of rejoining Japan? This year, at such a milestone, we should try even harder to revitalize the relationship between Okinawa and the mainland and bridge the distance. To achieve this, residents of the mainland will need to hear the story of Okinawa’s history and imagine what lies in the hearts of all Okinawans.

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About D Baker 34 Articles
Japanese to English translator and account manager of @grammargopher, which provides bitesize grammar lessons for English and Japanese language learners.

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