Okinawa and the Shadow of U.S.-Japanese Relations

Yesterday, some 65,000 people in Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, gathered to protest U.S. military bases on that island.

The protest was sparked by the recent rape and murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro, a crime which has been linked to an American military contractor, and is reminiscent of the 1995 protests which followed the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen.

Among Okinawans, there is a widespread perception of U.S. bases as “hotbeds of serious crime,” though, as the New York Times points out, “defenders of the military point to statistics that show American soldiers and sailors in Okinawa are charged with crimes by the Japanese authorities at lower rates than locals.”

The strain between the U.S., Okinawa, and Japan, however, runs deeper.

Teacher and protestor Noboru Kitano, 59, is quoted in the  Japanese Times as succinctly explaining the heart of the matter: “Japan is still a military colony of the United States. This base symbolizes that.”

The U.S. has had a continuous presence in Japan since the end of the second world war. Following the post-war occupation, the 1952 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan – which has been active in its current form since it was updated in 1960 – provided for the permanent presence of U.S. forces on Japanese soil.

The majority of those forces are on Okinawa.

As of January 2016, the Japanese census puts 1,432,387 people living on Okinawa, including about 50,000 Americans – making it home to about half the American soldiers and sailors stationed in Japan. About three-quarters of the acreage taken up by U.S. bases in Japan is on Okinawa.

But, here’s the thing – Okinawa and the Ryukyu Island chain of which it is a part, has its own distinct culture and a long history as a political pawn between Japan and China. In 1879 – around the same times our own U.S. civil war – Japan’s Meiji government annexed the then-sovereign Ryukyu Kingdom, creating the Okinawa prefecture we know today.

During the second world war, just 66 years after its annexation, Okinawa was the scene of one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the Pacific, and the largest military engagement in history. The brutal, 82-day, battle claimed the lives of 14,000 Allied forces, 77,000 Japanese soldiers and somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 Japanese civilians died.

Nearly all those civilians were Okinawan, and many of the Japanese soldiers were in fact Okinawan conscripts, drafted by the Japanese government against their will. The shocking death toll of this battle would then be used to justify U.S. use of nuclear weapons – as the American government became convinced that a land battle on the Japanese mainland would be just as horrific as the Battle of Okinawa, if not more so.

It’s entirely unclear if this is true, however. Seen as Japanese by the American troops and considered second-class citizens by the Japanese troops, Okinawan civilians suffered atrocities at the hands of both sides. Caught between the two superpowers, it was Okinawan civilians who suffered – one of the reasons for the horrific toll.

Following the war, the Japanese had little choice but to cede to American interests – which included establishing a strong presence of military operations in the east.

Okinawa, then, provided the perfect setting for rebuilding U.S.-Japanese relations. A strong U.S. presence there mitigated the risk of loosing the island prefecture to China – a manuver in the interest of both U.S. and Japanese officials. Furthermore, the Japanese lost little by ceding Okinawan land, while simultaneously ameliorating their U.S. occupiers. It was a win all around – except for the Okinawans.

This is a history that’s critical to understanding today’s Okinawan protests of American military bases. It’s almost beside the point whether local perceptions of American military crime are accurate or exaggerated. Just a few generations ago, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a proud, independent nation. Desired by China, annexed by Japan, and then colonized by the U.S., Okinawa has found itself continually caught between the interests of these global superpowers. And while great games of politics play out across the world stage, it seems it’s always the Okinawan people who suffer.

That is why they protest.

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