EDITORIAL: Okinawa has yet to gain equality in 44 years since return to Japan
May 15 marked the 44th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan following nearly three decades under the control of the U.S. military, which seized the island prefecture in the closing days of World War II.
But we still have to question whether Okinawa has really been fully integrated into Japan.
A 42-year-old man from Osaka who took part for the first time in the annual “5.15 Peace March,” which brings together members of labor unions and citizen groups, went to see Camp Schwab the previous day. Camp Schwab is a U.S. Marine Corps base in the Henoko district of Nago, which has been designated as the site of a new military base to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma currently located in the crowded city of Ginowan in the prefecture.
While he was on a boat inspecting areas that will be reclaimed for construction of the new base, he was warned against approaching off-limits areas by a patrol boat of the Okinawa Defense Bureau.
But the patrol boat said nothing to U.S. military personnel paddling canoes nearby. The man felt as if he were in an area that was not part of Japanese territory.
In the 1950s, U.S. Marines were stationed in Yamanashi and Gifu prefectures. As public opposition to the presence of U.S. bases on the mainland grew, the Marines were transferred to Okinawa, which was under U.S. administrative control. Camp Schwab is one of the bases built in Okinawa in those days.
Immediately after its reversion to Japan in 1972, Okinawa Prefecture, which comprises 0.6 percent of the nation’s land mass, was home to 59 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan. The ratio is now nearly 75 percent.
While U.S. bases on the mainland have diminished sharply over the decades, the U.S. military presence is Okinawa remains heavy.
There have been some positive developments. The U.S. aerial refueling tankers stationed at the Futenma base, for instance, were moved to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 2014.
But no plan to relocate a U.S. base out of Okinawa has been implemented.
In 2010, the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan floated the idea of moving the Futenma air base to Tokunoshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture. In 2015, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed to transfer Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft stationed at the Futenma base to Saga airport on a provisional basis.
Both plans, however, were abandoned amid strong opposition from the local communities concerned.
There have also been signs of inequality between the mainland and Okinawa in the government’s policy responses to issues related to U.S. military bases.
When U.S. forces’ live-fire drills were transferred from Okinawa to five areas on the mainland in 1997, the former Defense Facilities Administration Agency (now the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency) created a program to subsidize the costs of noise insulation work at affected houses.
This program, however, had long remained unknown in Okinawa.
The city of Nago, home to Camp Schwab, is now distrustful of the government for failing to apply the program to Okinawa.
The government has shown no intention to reconsider its plan to relocate the Futenma base to Henoko despite strong opposition among the public in Okinawa.
The reclamation work in Henoko has been suspended since the central and prefectural governments reached a settlement in their court battle over the relocation plan.
A new legal battle will likely erupt between the two sides, however, unless the central government changes its stance toward the issue.
The Abe administration should liberate itself from the rigid idea that the only choices are to either maintain the Futenma base in Ginowan or move it to Henoko. It should start exploring other options, including relocation out of the prefecture.
People in Okinawa have long been yearning to see their island prefecture freed from the heavy burden of hosting so many U.S. military bases. But they see little hope of their wish being answered after more than four decades since Okinawa was reverted to Japan.
For many people in the prefecture, it is difficult to take a first step toward Okinawa’s true integration into Japan because they do not feel they are being treated equally with the rest of the nation by the government.
This is a situation that raises many serious questions also for local governments and people on the mainland.