Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki marks the 77th anniversary of the end of one of World War II’s toughest battles on the southern islands on Thursday by calling for a further reduction in the US military presence amid a growing fear of being drawn into regional tensions.
The southern island group was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, known as the Battle of Okinawa, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, nearly half of whom were residents of Okinawa.
It was the only land battle fought on Japanese territory and is remembered for the Japanese army’s wartime attempt to delay the American landing on the mainland by sacrificing Okinawans.
In a ceremony marking the end of the battle on June 23, 1945, about 300 participants in Okinawa – including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other officials – offered a minute’s silence at noon and presented chrysanthemum flowers to the war dead. The number of attendants has been reduced due to coronavirus concerns.
In his declaration of peace at Thursday’s ceremony in the town of Itoman on the main island of Okinawa, Tamaki compared the battle to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying the destruction of towns, buildings and culture, as well as Ukrainians living in fear, “remind us of our memory of the Okinawa ground battle that confused citizens 77 years ago.”
“We are hit with an indescribable shock,” he said.
Tamaki also pledged to continue his efforts to abolish nuclear weapons and renounce war “so as never to let Okinawa become a battlefield”.
In May, Okinawa celebrated the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan in 1972, two decades after the end of American occupation of most of the country.
Today, the majority of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact and 70% of military installations are still in Okinawa, which is only 0.6% of Japanese territory.
Due to US bases, Okinawa faces burdens such as noise, pollution, accidents and crime from US troops, Tamaki said.
Kishida recognized the need for additional government efforts to reduce the burden on Okinawa stemming from US military bases while further supporting the islands’ economic development that has lagged during their 27-year US occupation.
Resentment and frustration run deep in Okinawa over the heavy US presence and Tokyo’s lack of effort to negotiate with Washington to balance the security burden between mainland Japan and the southern island group.
Adding to Okinawa’s fears is the growing deployment of Japanese missile defense and amphibious capabilities on Okinawa’s outlying islands that are close to geopolitical hotspots like Taiwan.
Kishida, citing deteriorating security environment in regional seas amid threats from China, North Korea and Russia, pledged to boost Japan’s military capacity and budget in coming years , including enemy attack capabilities that critics say interfere with Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
Kishida on Thursday renewed his commitment to maintaining Japan’s post-war effort as a “peace-loving nation”.