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Editorial: Japan needs to address heavy burden borne by Okinawa 50 yrs after reversion

The southern island prefecture of Okinawa marked 50 years since its reversion to Japan on May 15 after being kept under U.S. rule for many years since the end of World War II. Yet the prefecture is hardly in a jubilant mood.

    The concentration of U.S. military bases in Okinawa further progressed even after its return to Japanese sovereignty and remains unchanged today, giving rise to a significant inequality between the southernmost prefecture and mainland Japan. This state of affairs must not be left unaddressed.

    As Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, the world has witnessed how military strongholds become the initial targets once a war breaks out, with damage extended to civilians as well.

    For the people of Okinawa, who experienced the devastating ground battle in the final phase of World War II, Russia's aggression in Ukraine inevitably provoked the harrowing memories of that time. The magnitude of the shock they received from the ongoing war is beyond comparison with that of residents on the mainland.

    When a ceremony marking Okinawa's reversion to Japan was held in rainy Naha on May 15, 1972, a protest rally was staged at a park adjacent to the venue. Frustrations and disappointment smoldered over the realities behind the prefecture's return to Japanese rule, which came in a way that was a far cry from what Okinawans had expected.

    -- Concentration of bases in Okinawa a fait accompli

    In the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the lives of 188,000 people, including 94,000 residents, were lost in fighting on the ground. In spite of World War II coming to an end that same year, Okinawa remained under direct rule by the U.S. military. Even after Japan's sovereignty was restored under the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Okinawa was cut off from mainland Japan. In the 1950s, Okinawa suffered U.S. forces' "oppression" as it faced seizure of land and crimes such as killings and assaults by U.S. servicemen.

    What Okinawan people ardently sought was to have their basic human rights guaranteed under the Constitution of Japan, which had come into effect in 1947.

    Upon its return to Japan, Okinawa was supposed to have been ensured a "nuclear-free, mainland status."

    Certainly, tactical nuclear missiles were removed from Okinawa. Yet a secret pact allowing for the reintroduction of nuclear weapons into Okinawa in contingencies was reached between Japanese and U.S. leaders.

    For Tokyo and Washington, "mainland status" for Okinawa meant applying the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty to the island prefecture on an equal footing with mainland Japan. The U.S. military's right to use bases in Okinawa at its discretion was maintained.

    On the other hand, the reduction and consolidation of military bases in Okinawa were not achieved as desired by local residents, but rather their functions were further strengthened.

    It is abnormal that 70% of the total land area exclusively used by U.S. military installations in Japan lies in Okinawa, a prefecture accounting for just 0.6% of the country's total land area.

    The late former Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga once raised the question: "Are freedom, equality, human rights and democracy guaranteed under the Constitution equally ensured for the people of Okinawa, who have had no choice but to live between the Japan-U.S. security arrangement and the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)?"

    Among Okinawans, questions and doubts only keep growing whether they have really come under constitutional protection through Okinawa's return to Japan and if structural discrimination against Okinawa continues even today.

    The Japan-U.S. agreement in 1996 on the return of all the land occupied by U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Japan epitomized the Japanese government's efforts to reduce Okinawa's burden of hosting U.S. military bases. But from Okinawa's perspective, it was only forced to continue bearing the burden within the same prefecture through the airstrip's relocation to the city of Nago.

    In disregard of Okinawans' will displayed in a series of elections, the Japanese government has pressed ahead with construction work off the Henoko district of Nago for the base relocation.

    Even after soft ground was found on the seabed in a section of water subject to planned reclamation work, throwing the feasibility of the base transfer into doubt, the Japanese government has held fast to its position that moving the Futenma airbase's functions to Henoko is "the one and only solution" to the issue.

    -- Discussion on burden-sharing with mainland needed

    The national government's apparently iron-fisted tactics were bolstered under the administrations of former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, which spanned a total of nine years. While there once were statesmen who were pained by the harsh history Okinawa had gone through and exerted their efforts in an attempt to ease its burden, politicians today do not even give a glimpse of such sympathy.

    The security environment in the Asia-Pacific region is becoming increasingly severe amid waning deterrence by the United States and the rise of China.

    The state of affairs surrounding Japan, the U.S. and China have drastically changed since when Okinawa was reverted to Japan in 1972, the same year as then U.S. President Richard Nixon startled the world by visiting China, and Japan-China diplomatic ties were normalized. Concerns are currently growing over tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

    The Japanese Self-Defense Forces have been beefing up their defense systems by deploying missile defense units on the Nansei Islands in southwestern Japan, which include Okinawa islands. It is true that Okinawa's strategic importance is ever growing.

    That said, the absurdity of Okinawa alone bearing the excessive burden of hosting U.S. military bases must not be left unresolved any longer. Such a status quo cannot be said to be an appropriate political judgment in terms of stable and sustainable operation of the Japan-U.S. security arrangement.

    Tokyo and Washington are urged to hold consultations and drastically mitigate Okinawa's base burden. They should further promote rotation deployment overseas for U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa, including to Guam, and consider relocating bases in Okinawa to mainland Japan.

    How to respond to crimes and accidents triggered by U.S. personnel is a challenge not only for Okinawa but also mainland local bodies hosting U.S. military installations. It is essential to revise the SOFA, which stipulates the operation of U.S. bases in Japan and the rights of parties concerned.

    Just as the international security environment is undergoing tumultuous changes, the problems confronted by Okinawa must be reviewed and reconsidered in the larger context of Japan's security strategy including its diplomacy.

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