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Tomohiro OSAKI

Discontent simmers as Okinawa marks 50 years since US rule ended

Anti-US military base activist and native Okinawan Jinshiro Motoyama is on a hunger strike to protest the troop presence. ©AFP

Tokyo (AFP) - The Japanese island of Okinawa marks 50 years since the end of US rule Sunday, with discontent simmering about the ongoing presence of American troops and fears about growing regional tensions.

The post-World War II US occupation of Japan lasted until 1952, but it took another 20 years for Okinawa, the country's southernmost prefecture, to regain its sovereignty.

The anniversary was marked with official ceremonies in Tokyo and Okinawa, with the island's governor Denny Tamaki calling attention to the "excessive burden" he said is placed on residents in his prefecture as it hosts the bulk of United States bases. 

The long-festering controversy was highlighted by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, too.     

"The government takes this fact seriously, and will continue to make an utmost effort to reduce this burden," he told the ceremony in Okinawa. 

Longstanding concerns for Okinawans about the US troop presence -- and more recent worries about the threat of a military confrontation involving China -- remained palpable. 

"I'm not in the mood to celebrate at all," Okinawan native Jinshiro Motoyama told AFP ahead of the anniversary as he sat outside a Tokyo government building on a week-long hunger strike.

Like many Okinawans, he feels the region bears an unfair burden in hosting the majority of about 55,000 US military personnel in Japan and is protesting to draw attention to the issue.

Okinawa accounts for just 0.6 percent of Japan's landmass but hosts about 70 percent of all US military bases and facilities.

And that presence has produced a host of issues -- from crashes and noise pollution to crimes involving servicemen, including the 1995 gang rape of a local schoolgirl.

"Only when issues surrounding US bases have been resolved in a way that satisfies Okinawans can we celebrate," said Motoyama, a 30-year-old graduate student.

A nationwide poll by broadcaster NHK this month found 80 percent of Japanese consider the current disproportionate distribution of United States forces "wrong" or "somewhat wrong."  

'Island of peace'

A key flashpoint is the planned relocation of Okinawa's Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, sometimes dubbed the "world's most dangerous base" due to its proximity to residential areas.

It is scheduled to move to less-populated Henoko, but many Okinawans want it transferred elsewhere in the country, with 70 percent of local voters rejecting the relocation plan in a non-binding 2019 referendum.

"Upon Okinawa's reversion, the prefecture and the central government agreed they will aspire to make it the island of peace, but fifty years on, that goal is not achieved yet," Tamaki told the ceremony on Sunday.

Construction in Henoko has continued nonetheless, with the central government defending it as the "only possible way" to mitigate Futenma's dangers and maintain the Japan-US alliance's deterrence.

The US military presence accounts for around five percent of Okinawa's annual income, but it remains Japan's poorest prefecture, with a child poverty rate of nearly 30 percent, more than twice the national average.

Local officials argue transferring some of the bases elsewhere would free up land that could bring in other revenue, including by attracting more tourists.

US President Joe Biden visits Japan later this month for the first time since taking office, with concerns about China's growing military assertiveness in the region likely to be on the agenda.

"I am profoundly grateful for Japan's resolute support for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law and for Okinawa's contribution to advancing these ideals," Biden said in a statement released Sunday.

In recent months, Japanese officials have expressed concern about stepped-up local Chinese marine activity including hundreds of take-offs from an aircraft carrier.

That makes Okinawa an increasingly strategic location for US and Japanese troops, and has raised worries among residents about whether they could be caught up in any future conflict.

"When you think of Okinawa, the first thing that crosses your mind might be its beautiful sea, clear blue sky, good food and kind residents," Motoyama said. 

"But I hope this anniversary will make people realise that underneath all this lies the issue of US bases that many Okinawans feel must be resolved."

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