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Late Okinawa Gov. Ota's anti-base struggle rooted in pacifism born of wartime horror

In this Feb. 6, 1998 file photo, then Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota announces his opposition to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture, at a news conference in Naha. (Mainichi)

On June 12, former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota's life of struggle to solve the problem of U.S. military bases in his island prefecture came to an end, as he passed away on his 92nd birthday. Ota spent years in fearless confrontation with the Japanese government over the forced imposition of the bases on local land owners, a determination that was born of events during some of Okinawa's darkest days: 1945's Battle of Okinawa.

In 1945, Ota was part of the "tekketsu kinno" (blood-and-iron Imperial loyalty) unit at Okinawa Normal School, and he and his fellow students were mobilized and sent into the fray. On multiple occasions during the battle, Ota witnessed Imperial Japanese Army soldiers driving Okinawan civilians out of their hiding places in dugouts at rifle-point. As the Japanese forces began to crumble in the face of the U.S. invasion, Ota was even accused of spying for the enemy and came within a hair of being executed.

"Militaries absolutely do not protect civilians in war. That was the biggest lesson I learned from the Battle of Okinawa," Ota often told reporters.

His prayers for school friends who did not survive the battle became the bedrock for his pacifist political creed. After graduating from the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo, Ota crossed the Pacific to the United States, and completed a graduate degree at Syracuse University in New York State. In 1968, he joined the faculty at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, where he dedicated himself to the study of the Battle of Okinawa.

Ota left the university for politics and was elected prefectural governor in 1990, but the battle would always be his touchstone. As a gubernatorial candidate and when he refused to sign off on the forced use of Okinawan land for U.S. bases -- triggering a fierce legal fight with the central government -- Ota visited the Mabuni area of the city of Itoman, site of a particularly bloody chapter of the battle and now home to Okinawa's Peace Memorial Park.

"I cannot allow that tragedy to be repeated. That's the meaning of my life," he told reporters.

Currently, though Okinawa Prefecture makes up just 0.6 percent of Japan's land area, it hosts 70.6 percent of U.S. military facilities in the country. Even after leaving politics, Ota actively opposed Japanese and U.S. government plans to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago, a city also in Okinawa.

"I cannot approve of filling in the beautiful sea off Henoko to build a base. If we did accept it, Okinawa would be accepting virtually permanent coexistence with the bases," Ota stated again and again, and demanded the Japanese and U.S. governments rethink the Futenma relocation plan.

In 2016, the 20th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. agreement to return Futenma, Ota told an interviewer, "It would be good if mainland Japanese could think a little more about Okinawa's problems as their own problems. That they don't is what troubles me the most. I can't help but worry about what will happen in the future."

Ota's last book, "Okinawa tekketsu kinno-tai" (Okinawa blood-and-iron Imperial loyalty unit), was published this month. In the preface, the ex-governor and academic says, "What I cannot forget even for a day is the Battle of Okinawa, that terribly tragic struggle that was like many hells all in the same place."

Ota's dream was for a "peaceful Okinawa with no military bases." He passed away without ever seeing that dream become reality.

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