Anti-US military base activist and native Okinawan Jinshiro Motoyama is on a hunger strike to protest the troop presence


Anti-US military base activist and native Okinawan Jinshiro Motoyama is on a hunger strike to protest the troop presence – Copyright AFP Philip FONG

Tomohiro OSAKI

The Japanese island of Okinawa marks 50 years since the end of US rule Sunday, with discontent simmering about the ongoing presence of American troops and fears about growing regional tensions.

The post-World War II US occupation of Japan lasted until 1952, but it took another 20 years for Okinawa, the country’s southernmost prefecture, to regain its sovereignty.     

The anniversary is being marked with official ceremonies, but behind the pleasantries are longstanding concerns for Okinawans about the US troop presence and more recent worries about the threat of a military confrontation involving China.

“I’m not in the mood to celebrate at all,” Okinawan native Jinshiro Motoyama told AFP ahead of the anniversary as he sat outside a Tokyo government building on a week-long hunger strike.

Like many Okinawans, he feels the region bears an unfair burden in hosting the majority of about 55,000 US military personnel in Japan and is protesting to draw attention to the issue.

Okinawa accounts for just 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass but hosts about 70 percent of all US military bases and facilities.

And that presence has produced a host of issues — from crashes and noise pollution to crimes involving servicemen, including the 1995 gang-rape of a local schoolgirl.

“Only when issues surrounding US bases have been resolved in a way that satisfies Okinawans can we celebrate,” said Motoyama, a 30-year-old graduate student.

A nationwide poll by broadcaster NHK this month found 80 percent of Japanese consider the current disproportionate distribution of US forces “wrong” or “somewhat wrong.”  

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who will be in Okinawa on Sunday to mark the anniversary, acknowledged the discontent in remarks Friday before the parliament.

“The government takes seriously the fact that the burden of hosting bases is weighing on residents in Okinawa,” he said.

“We will have to make a greater effort to reduce this burden,” he added, without providing specifics. 

— ‘Excessive burden’ —

A key flashpoint is the planned relocation of Okinawa’s Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, sometimes dubbed the “world’s most dangerous base” due to its proximity to residential areas.

It is scheduled to move to less-populated Henoko, but many Okinawans want it transferred elsewhere in the country, with 70 percent of local voters rejecting the relocation plan in a non-binding 2019 referendum.

“Residents in the prefecture remain saddled with the excessive burden of hosting the bases,” Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki said in a petition against the relocation submitted to Kishida ahead of the anniversary.

Construction in Henoko has continued nonetheless, with the central government defending it as the “only possible way” to mitigate Futenma’s dangers and maintain the Japan-US alliance’s deterrence.  

US President Joe Biden visits Japan later this month for the first time since taking office, with concerns about China’s growing military assertiveness in the region likely to be on the agenda.

Increasing military activity by Beijing makes Okinawa ever-more important as a base for US and Japanese troops and has left some of the region’s residents fearing they could be caught in a future conflict.

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