Okinawa 50 Years After Reversion

Embattled Okinawa: Mirror of the Asia-Pacific


A former journalist and expert on international politics with roots in Okinawa draws a multifaceted portrait of the prefecture and its ongoing struggles a half-century after its reversion to Japanese sovereignty.

For much of its history, Okinawa—formerly known as Ryūkyū—has been buffeted by the maneuverings and rivalries of the region’s dominant powers. While China and the United States have both played important roles in that checkered history, the dominant force for the past four centuries has been Japan, of which Okinawa is now a part. In the following, I offer a brief survey of this fraught relationship, interspersed with my own impressions of Okinawa, where I lived as a child and a young reporter.

Satsuma Invasion to Battle of Okinawa

From the sixteenth century to the end of World War II, Okinawa’s history was shaped by Japan’s emergence as a unified nation and its ambitions for outward expansion. Aggression by the Satsuma domain of Kyūshū began in the late sixteenth century against the backdrop of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having triumphed over his internal rivals, launching his ill-fated invasions of Korea, hoping ultimately to challenge Ming dynasty China.

In 1609, following the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, Satsuma secured the shōgun’s permission to launch an expedition against the islands, and the Ryūkyū kings became vassals to the Satsuma domain. The Ryūkyū Kingdom came under the rule of Satsuma in 1611, but it retained its own governing structure throughout the Edo period (1603–1868).

With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the domains were abolished, and power was consolidated under the new central government. Before long, the Meiji leaders set their sights on expanding the Japanese empire’s sphere of influence to the Korean Peninsula. The annexation of Ryūkyū and its reconstitution as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 can be seen as an early step in this process.

Japan’s quest for expansion led ultimately to war and the pivotal Battle of Okinawa (March–June 1945). As US forces prepared to seize Okinawa as a foothold for an assault on Japan’s “home islands,” Japanese leaders called for total war, exhorting every citizen to fight the invader with every last drop of blood. The long and bloody battle that ensued claimed the lives of about one-fourth of the island’s population.

Memories of Post-Reversion Okinawa

After World War II, the US military maintained a large presence in Okinawa, viewing it as a key strategic base in the region. The islands remained under US administration long after the Occupation of Japan ended in 1952. They finally reverted to Japanese sovereignty on May 15, 1972, under an agreement guaranteeing the US Armed Forces continued access to Okinawa’s bases.

I was born in Tokyo a few years earlier in 1968, but I have roots in Okinawa and personal memories of the post-reversion years. My parents, both born in Okinawa, later migrated to Tokyo, where my father worked in the government. While I was still in elementary school, my father was transferred to Okinawa, so the family moved back there.

My classmates in Tokyo congratulated me at the time, remarking that in Okinawa I would be able to swim in the ocean every day. As it turned out, the entire coastline of Urasoe, where we lived, was occupied by a US military base, and as the elementary school there had no pool, very few of the local children even knew how to swim. Our school finally got a pool when I was in sixth grade. Such improvements were a feature of the immediate post-reversion era, when there was a big push to bring Okinawa’s neglected infrastructure up to the standards that prevailed elsewhere in Japan. However, what I remember best about that pool is the scare that occurred when a deadly habu pit viper found its way in through a gutter. We all stood about watching at a safe distance as the snake was carefully captured and removed.

Another symbol of that period that I clearly recall is the “730” signs that popped up everywhere in 1978. In July 30 of that year, Okinawa was scheduled to switch from right-hand traffic—a relic of the American administration—to left-hand traffic like the rest of Japan. The signs were part of a massive public campaign to prevent traffic chaos by alerting everyone in advance of the change.

Okinawa in the early 1990s

I later moved back to Tokyo, where I attended university and, upon graduation, found work as a reporter for Japan’s national broadcaster NHK. My very first posting was at the network’s local station back in Okinawa. It was 1992, the twentieth anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion. In honor of the occasion, NHK produced the season-long historical taiga drama Ryūkyū no kaze (Winds of Ryūkyū), a story set against the background of the Satsuma invasion. It seems that the program was conceived as a strategy for winning the loyalty of the local populace, who tended to view the public broadcaster as a “mainland” institution and resented the reception fee imposed on all Japanese households.

The centerpiece of the twentieth-anniversary celebration was the restoration of Shuri Castle—the seat of Ryūkyū's royal government from 1429 to 1879—which had been reduced to rubble in the Battle of Okinawa. As a first-year reporter, I was assigned to the Shuri Castle story, and I covered a lot of turf searching for local tidbits and insights on the topic. I learned that in 1950, the US government had built the University of the Ryūkyūs on the site of the old castle, modeling it after the American land-grant colleges. Michigan State University was closely involved in the project, and both MSU and the US government continued to support the university in the years that followed. This has been cited as an early example of Washington’s Cold War strategy of using overseas academic institutions to foster pro-American attitudes among local elites and the surrounding community. The school was moved to another site in 1975, making room for the restoration of Shuri Castle, partially completed in 1992. Thus, in a period of a few decades, the site metamorphosed from a war ruin to a product of US Cold War strategy to a symbol of the old Ryūkyū Kingdom, restored by the Japanese government (which also financed construction of the surrounding park).(*1) The changing landscape of Shuri was like a distillation of Okinawan history and the diverse influences that have shaped it.

The restored Seiden (Main Hall) of Shuri Castle at its opening on May 15, 1992, coinciding with twentieth anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese control. (© Jiji)
The restored Seiden (Main Hall) of Shuri Castle at its opening on May 15, 1992, coinciding with twentieth anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese control. (© Jiji)

Turning Point in 1995

Here the tone of my narrative must change again, for in the mid-1990s, relations between Okinawa and Tokyo entered a period of tension and instability that persists to this day.

The inciting incident occurred on September 4, 1995, when three American servicemen kidnapped, beat, and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl, unleashing a wave of anger and resentment against the US military in Okinawa.

The 1995 rape was by no means the first such offense. Similar incidents had occurred during pre-reversion years, but it had been difficult for the locals to see justice done under the pro-military US administration. The 1995 case triggered media coverage and outrage all over Japan, but the tepid official response epitomized the perception gap between Okinawa and the government in Tokyo. As regional newspaper Ryūkyū Shimpō put it in editorial on September 29, 1995, “the Japanese and US governments united in treating it as an unfortunate incident perpetrated by a few ‘bad apples.’ The Okinawans, by contrast, see it as the latest in a series of tragedies that began a half century earlier and will continue as long as the US bases remain.”

Turnout for a protest rally held on October 21 in the city of Ginowan (just northeast of Naha) was 85,000 (according to organizers), far above initial estimates. Attracting one out of every 15 prefectural residents, it was the largest demonstration held in Okinawa since the reversion in 1972.

Demonstrators mass at a protest rally in Ginowan, Okinawa, on October 21, 1995, following the kidnapping and rape of an Okinawan girl by US servicemen. (© Jiji)
Demonstrators mass at a protest rally in Ginowan, Okinawa, on October 21, 1995, following the kidnapping and rape of an Okinawan girl by US servicemen. (© Jiji)

The rape incident and the ensuing protests were enough to secure the base issue a position of prominence in national affairs, but what finally brought things to a head was prefectural Governor Ōta Masahide’s refusal to renew the leases of locally owned land to the US military.

Most of the land on which the bases operate is leased to the Japanese government by private landowners. To guarantee the US Armed Forces access to that land, the governor of Okinawa was legally empowered to forcibly renew the leases by signing on behalf of the landowners. But in the fall of 1995, Governor Ōta refused to sign, disturbed by the rape incident as well as by reports that the US military had plans to maintain a permanent presence in Okinawa in the post–Cold War era. Although new legislation ultimately shifted his authority to the Japanese government, the lease crisis forced Japanese and US authorities to talk seriously about options for reducing the burden of the military bases on Okinawa.

At the bottom of the crisis was the Japanese government’s failure to act earlier, despite its avowed commitment to reducing the burden. Having achieved the islands’ return to Japanese sovereignty, Tokyo quickly lost interest in local affairs and the problems of ordinary Okinawans. The bill for this neglect was finally coming due.

The Futenma Debacle

In April 1996, Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō announced what appeared to be a major breakthrough: an agreement with the US government to return all the land occupied by Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, a base notorious for its impact on the surrounding community. This was an unexpected development, as Futenma’s return had not been on the table previously, and Okinawans greeted it enthusiastically as a sign that the Japanese and American governments were finally getting serious about base reductions.

But the return of MCAS Futenma was predicated on the construction of replacement facilities, the details of which were not clearly spelled out, let alone approved by local authorities. What was initially described as a heliport to be built on another existing base morphed first into a removable offshore airfield in Ōura Bay and then into a permanent, large-scale coastal facility in the Henoko district of Nago in northern Okinawa. Okinawans were understandably frustrated to learn that the promised return of MCAS Futenma would involve extensive construction of new military facilities elsewhere in the prefecture. The controversy dominated successive local elections, and the project stalled in the face of stiff resistance.

In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan toppled the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and Hatoyama Yukio took over as prime minister. Hatoyama promised to move MCAS Futenma “out of the prefecture at the least,” rejecting the Henoko relocation plan approved by the Japanese government in 1999. Hatoyama’s idea was dismissed not only by Washington but also by key members of his own government, and he was forced to retract the pledge.

After the LDP returned to power in 2012, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō ordered land reclamation work to commence in Henoko, triggering an intense backlash in Okinawa. By this time, the LDP—and, indeed, a growing portion of the Japanese public—was losing patience with Okinawa’s ongoing battle with the central government. Some went so far as to brand the Okinawans as “anti-Japanese.”

Okinawa as Mirror of the Asia-Pacific

There is no question that the security environment surrounding Japan has deteriorated since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s. First came the North Korean nuclear crisis, then rising tensions with China over the Senkaku Islands, and most recently intimations of a possible contingency in the Taiwan Strait. It is natural for Japan to strengthen its defenses in response to these threats. What worries me is the way fire-eating rhetoric—like “a Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency”—has come to dominate our political discourse, and how silent our leaders have become on the need for closer dialogue and other efforts to ease tensions through diplomacy, the basic function of politics.

If this “logic of security” were to sweep the nation, carrying everything before it, the consequences would fall most heavily on Okinawa. If Japan were to become embroiled in an actual contingency, the most likely battlefield would not be Tokyo, where the policy makers reside, but Okinawa, which is closest to Taiwan and hosts by far the greatest concentration of US military bases.

The nations of Northeast Asia, including Japan and China, are facing the structural challenge of rapid demographic aging and population decline, while the younger countries of South and Southeast Asia offer the promise of strong economic growth going forward. It would be a tragedy if future historians were forced to write that the region’s resources were squandered on an arms race fueled by mutual distrust among the countries of Northeast Asia.

In some ways, Okinawa is a mirror of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. It has been buffeted and scarred by rivalry and war among the great powers. But it has come into its own during the last 50 years of regional peace and prosperity and has won the admiration of the world for its unique cultural and natural assets. Whether it can continue to shine with its own special light in the decades to come depends on the rest of the region. By building a future in which Okinawa—this “mirror of the Asia-Pacific”—can flourish, we will also be acting to secure the peace and prosperity of the region as a whole.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Kadena Air Base, a US Air Force facility in Okinawa, viewed from an observation deck, October 21, 2021. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ The main structures of the castle were destroyed in a fire in 2019.—Ed.

Okinawa US military bases Asia-Pacific Ryukyu