Yesterday, Okinawa Memorial Day was observed across all the islands of Okinawa, commemorating the end of the Battle of Okinawa 77 years ago, where Japanese Imperial soldiers and civilians alike perished. Established by the Okinawan government while it was still under American sovereignty, it mourns the loss of over 200,000 people, hoping that such a catastrophe will never happen again.
Then-Prefectural Governor Akira Shimada, a Kobe native who had just started his new appointment before the American military landed, was among those lost on the battlefield. We too must make a renewed oath for peace.
During memorial services held at Okinawa’s peace memorial park in Itoman, built on the site of the conflict’s last great battlefield, Prefectural Governor Denny Tamaki said, “Our land is at a critical juncture 50 years since its return to Japan. Even now, 70.3% of Japanese land occupied by American bases are concentrated in Okinawa. I ask that this number be lowered, that the Status of Forces Agreement be heavily revised and that the use and relocation of Futenma to Nagano bay be abandoned.” This echoes what many Okinawans, who believe their home has been made the sacrificial lamb to protect the mainland, desire. There must be sincere, one-to-one talks between the central government and Okinawans.
Even with the end of this gruesome battle, with the forced seizure of Okinawa by the U.S. military, human rights and independence were tread upon. It’s easy to understand why Okinawans wished to return to Japan while also aspiring for peace. Though Okinawa would return to Japan’s hands, wartime troubles never completely disappeared, such as the 1995 assault on a young girl by an American serviceman, the 2004 incident when a large transport helicopter crash landed into Okinawa International University and went up in flames, or the helicopter window that landed on Ginowan Second Municipal Elementary School in 2017. It would be impossible to enumerate the sound disturbances stemming from transport and military vehicles or the crimes and pollution that the military generates. Never forget that their bases are the root of all these issues.
A Living Proposition
85-year-old Kamenosuke Taira, a former prefectural government worker from Oroku Village (now part of Naha), was a third-grader during the Battle of Okinawa. Fleeing to the northern end of the main island, he and his family were ordered to donate food supplies to the Japanese soldiers. “They’d threaten you with a katana if you refused,” he recounts. With their home burned to the ground and cordoned off by the American military, the horrors of war became the starting point for Taira’s life.
He would end up joining the Strategic Committee for the Return of the Ryukyuan Government, which inspected the Okinawa Reversion Agreement and the subsequent bill written by the central government in 1971. Clauses such as one that secured U.S. bases on the island were seen as “wholly unacceptable.” After their extensive examinations, Taira and other committee members brought their opinions forward to the Ryukyuan government’s chief executive, Chobyo Yara. They were collected in what was titled “Propositions Regarding Measures for Restoration.”
“The people of our land, who have faced such horrific wartime tragedies … reject any and all that would connect us to conflict,” they wrote, while also demanding the disposal of military bases, independence and the confirmation of their human rights. Their propositions were ignored by the Japanese government. “As a result, Okinawa is how it is today,” Taira says, “with issues like the permanent stationing of Osprey aircraft and the building of the new base in Henoko; the onus just keeps growing for Okinawans. While they haven’t answered us yet, our demands haven’t expired. Our propositions are still in effect, they’re still living.”
No Relief in Sight
As fears loom of conflict in Taiwan, the southern islands extending from there to Kyushu are becoming an important stationing area for the Self Defense Force. It must be noted that there are Okinawans who see the horrible state of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion and draw parallels with the Battle of Okinawa.
Trying to create “islands of peace with no bases” should obviously be a national issue. However, in the upper house elections, the narrative has been solely on whether or not we should increase defense, while the military base issue has been relegated to the background.
During yesterday’s memorial services, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida proclaimed, “We are taking steps toward reducing the strain placed on Okinawa by military bases.” The Komeito, which is in coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, has also supported these efforts. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Democratic, Communist and Social Democratic parties have called for the cancellation of the Henoko Bay project, and the Japan Restoration Party and the Democratic Party for the People have called for the revision of SOFA, from which America receives its special privileges. None of them have shown a tangible way of making these a reality, though.
Okinawans have a firmly rooted belief that if things go wrong, they will become a target. Serious discussions must be had about the military base issue and Okinawa’s safety so that they may never become sacrificial lambs again.