NAHA, Japan – Okinawa on Friday marked 72 years since the end of a fierce World War II ground battle that killed a quarter of its civilian population, with resentment running deep over the continuing burden islanders bear in hosting the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan.
Touching on a crash-landing accident involving the U.S. military’s Osprey aircraft near the main island in December and other incidents, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said at a memorial service for the war dead the same day, “We see moves running counter to a reduction of the burden.”
He also criticized the central government for moving ahead with a plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture, which he has fiercely opposed while proposing instead that the air base be moved outside of the island prefecture.
Onaga said he cannot “tolerate” the ongoing construction work, describing it as going against “the will of the people” in Okinawa.
The governor said he understands the importance of Japan-U.S. security arrangements, in which the U.S. military is granted the use of facilities and areas in Japan for the security of the country, but noted that the burden should be shared by the “entire nation.”
“I want people in this country to sincerely think about Okinawa’s situation and how Japan-U.S. security arrangements should be,” Onaga said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also attended the ceremony held at the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, the site of the final stage of the Battle of Okinawa, renewed the government’s pledge never to wage war again.
Acknowledging that Okinawa’s base-hosting burden is heavy, Abe added, “I’m determined to produce definite results to allay the burden.”
U.S. bases in the prefecture were built on land expropriated from islanders during the postwar U.S. occupation that lasted until 1972. Despite only accounting for 0.6 percent of the country’s land mass, Okinawa is home to about 70 percent of the total area of land exclusively used by U.S. military facilities in Japan.
The plan to move the Futenma base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area in Nago is perceived by many locals as just imposing another burden and they want the base to be moved outside the prefecture.
But the central government has maintained that the current relocation plan is “the only solution” to removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Okinawans are also frustrated with noise, crimes and accidents linked to U.S. bases, and safety concerns were reignited by the Dec. 13 crash-landing of a U.S. Marine MV-22 Osprey aircraft — the first major accident involving tilt-rotor transport aircraft deployed in Japan.
The alleged rape and murder of a 20-year-old Okinawa woman by a U.S. civilian base worker in April 2016 has also deepened anti-base sentiment in the prefecture.
This year, the names of 54 war dead were newly inscribed on the Cornerstone of Peace in the park, bringing the total to 241,468, irrespective of nationality and military or civilian status.
The monument was erected by Masahide Ota, a former Okinawa governor who died on June 12 at the age of 92.
Ota was governor when large protests erupted over the rape of a 12-year-old local girl by U.S. service members in 1995, bringing national attention to the disproportionately large U.S. military presence in the island prefecture and heightening tensions between the prefectural and central governments.
The Battle of Okinawa began in the spring of 1945, when U.S. forces landed on the main island of Okinawa and other islands in the area. Some 94,000 civilians, or about a quarter of the residents of the prefecture, died in the three-month battle between Japanese and U.S. troops. Overall, more than 200,000 lives were lost, including those of Americans.