If the American occupation in Japan ended in 1952, it took another twenty years for the islands of Okinawa (southwest), the scene of a bloody battle from April to June 1945, to return to the fold. Japanese.
The backdrop to Sunday’s ceremonies attended by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was the local population’s longstanding hostility to US bases on their soil and the threat of a military confrontation involving China.
This fiftieth anniversary has already been marked by protests from residents of Okinawa and their supporters, strongly criticizing the American bases on these islands which host the majority of the 55,000 American soldiers present in Japan.
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki himself spoke of an “excessive burden”, while Mr Kishida said his government took “this fact seriously and would continue to make every effort to reduce this burden”.
“I’m not in the mood to celebrate at all” the anniversary, Jinshiro Motoyama, a 30-year-old doctoral student from Okinawa who was on a hunger strike, told AFP this week. in front of a government building in Tokyo.
Okinawa Prefecture is only 0.6% of Japan’s land area, but more than 70% of the total area of US military installations in the country are on its soil.
– Helicopter crashes and rapes –
Resentment against the bases there has long been fueled by multiple incidents: noise and environmental pollution, helicopter crashes, and sexual assaults, including the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by American soldiers in 1995.
“We can only celebrate when the question of the American bases has been resolved in a manner satisfactory to the people of Okinawa,” said Motoyama.
The anger of the inhabitants is crystallized by the project of transfer of the air base of Futenma, nicknamed the “most dangerous base in the world” because of its presence in a residential area of the main island of Okinawa, towards Henoko, a less densely populated place further north.
Many would prefer the base to be relocated elsewhere in Japan, and more than 70% of participants in a local referendum in 2019 voted against the transfer to Henoko.
Moreover, according to a national poll published this month by the public television channel NHK, 80% of the Japanese population takes a dim view of the American presence concentrated in Okinawa.
– Strategic bases against China –
The construction of the new base continues despite everything, the government assuring that it is the “only possible solution” to resolve the question of Futenma while maintaining the deterrent presence of the United States as part of its strategic alliance. with Japan.
Concerns over China’s growing territorial ambitions will be on the menu for US President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan, scheduled for later this month.
In a message on Sunday, Biden said the Okinawa handover had “represented the end of one chapter” in US-Japan relations and “the beginning of another”. Today, “our alliance is stronger than it has ever been,” he said.
The significant Chinese military activity in the region makes the American military presence in Okinawa all the more strategic, making the inhabitants fear to find themselves at the heart of a possible conflict.
Okinawa, whose US military presence accounts for just 5% of annual revenue, is also Japan’s poorest county, with a child poverty rate approaching 30%, more than double the national average.
Local officials say moving some military bases out of Okinawa would free up space for activities that could boost revenue by attracting more tourists, for example.