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Japan's Okinawa may be on the front lines again as it marks anniversary of U.S. handover

By Tim Kelly
A member of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) raises the Japanese national flag in the morning, at JGSDF Miyako camp on Miyako Island, Okinawa prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. Picture taken April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Seihan Nakazato wants the missile trucks on the base next to his melon farm to leave, but few others on Okinawa's Miyako island, he complains, are demanding that Japan's army remove such weapons, which he says would make them a target for China.

"We are a small community and there are lots of complicated relationships," said Nakazato, 68, standing next to one of the greenhouses he worries could be bombed. "Some islanders do work for the base and others have relatives in the military."

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) conduct a military drill next to an anti-ship missiles unit, at JGSDF Miyako camp on Miyako Island, Okinawa prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. Picture taken April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

As Nakazato harvests his melons on Japan's key border outpost, Okinawa on Sunday marks 50 years since the United States ended its occupation, raising hopes of a return to normality after its devastation in World War Two. But the East China Sea island chain, which, along with Taiwan, hems in Beijing's forces, fears it will become a battlefield again.

"We are worried about statements by national lawmakers that a Taiwan contingency would be a Japan contingency, and recent discussions that seem to assume Okinawa would be involved in an armed conflict," Okinawa's governor Denny Tamaki said at a news conference on May 6. The prefecture has about 1.4 million people, most of them on the eponymous main island.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has added to those concerns, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warning of the fragility of security in Asia.

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) hold morning preparatory exercises at JGSDF Miyako camp on Miyako Island, Okinawa prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. Picture taken April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

And Japanese lawmakers from Kishida's party have said they want strike missiles added to the country's arsenal - a weapon that could be deployed to Okinawa.

China, which spends almost five times as much on defence as Japan, says it intentions in the region are peaceful.

"Okinawa will be the front line in the case of a war or conflict between Japan and China," said Masaaki Gabe, a professor emeritus at the University of Ryukyus on Okinawa's main island, who described himself as an insecure 17-year-old when the U.S. occupation ended.

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) conduct a military drill next to an anti-ship missiles unit, at JGSDF Miyako camp on Miyako Island, Okinawa prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. Picture taken April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

"After 50 years, the insecure feeling still continues," he added.

STRATEGIC VALUE

Fringed with coral reefs and covered in sugar cane, Gabe's home island is a vital military outpost. It has two airports, a large port and is less than 400 kilometres (249 miles) from Taiwan. It is also 200km from uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are the focal point of an intensifying territorial dispute with China.

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) salute the Japanese national flag during the morning assembly at JGSDF Miyako camp on Miyako Island, Okinawa prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. Picture taken April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

The Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) camp next to Nakazato's farm, which used to be a golf course, is Japan's newest army base. The missiles deployed there, meant to target Chinese ships sailing in and out the Western Pacific, are the closest such weapons Japan has to China.

"I fear the whole island will become a fortress," said Hayako Shimizu, 73, the leader of a group of protesters opposed to the base, who stand outside every Thursday with flags planted on Nakazato's land.

"There aren't many people who speak up, although I think a lot of people are unhappy with it," Shimizu added.

Base commander Colonel Masakazu Iyota, 52, thinks most islanders support or accept the presence of the 700 GSDF troops and their equipment, which he described as a "frontline deterrence".

"I don't think our current posture is enough," he said.

NEXT STEPS

Iyota may get reinforcements after Japan revises its national security strategy this year.

As part of that review, ruling LDP lawmakers have said they want a commitment to more defence spending - including on missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil.

Japan may hold off on deploying such strike weapons to Miyako to avoid provoking China, only 600km away, but Gabe predicts the country will station aircraft and other missiles in Okinawa.

The next phase of military expansion on Miyako could be at its Shimoji airport, a former senior defence ministry official told Reuters, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Built to train jumbo jet pilots, it has been a symbol of resistance to militarization since Okinawa's first post-occupation governor, Chobyo Yara, secured a government promise to never deploy military planes there.

Senior ruling Liberal Democratic party lawmakers such as Masahisa Sato have sought to annul that.

"Apart from the main Okinawa island, it is the only other place an F-15 fighter jet can operate from," said Sato, a former deputy defence minister, who proposed stationing air force jets there in 2020. "As we have seen in Ukraine, you never know when war will break out."

ISLAND POLITICS

Kishida's party will need local support in Okinawa to build more bases, a tough proposition when resentment over U.S. forces there dominates politics.

Of 812 Okinawans polled by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they strongly opposed U.S. bases; only a quarter of 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.

A test of whether the LDP can gain ground comes in September, when Okinawa chooses its governor. Tamaki, an independent who wants a smaller military footprint, is on the ballot.

On Miyako, Masahiro Hamamoto, 48, who served as an LDP city councilor for eight years, sees a chance for his party to gain support on his island, which depends on farming, tourism and public works spending.

"There is a sense that it benefits the island by having closer political links to central government," said the local beverage and cigarette wholesaler, who was born two years after Okinawa was returned to Japan.

The income of Miyako's 55,000 residents is about 70% of the national average.

"The economy isn't good, so people will vote for the LDP," said Toshiaki Shimoji, 61, an Okinawa main island resident who traveled to Miyako to work his family's farm.

"Russia invaded Ukraine, so there will be more defence spending and that could mean more missiles here. I don't think base protests will change anything," he added, sitting on a tractor in a sugar cane field.

(The story is refiled to add dropped word in paragraph 18)

(Reporting by Tim Kelly, additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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Dive Deeper:
Japan's Okinawa marks half century since U.S. handover as regional tensions grow
The Japanese island chain of Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary on Sunday of the end of U.S. occupation and its…
Chinese air incursions, naval drills alarm Japan, Taiwan
The Chinese Navy conducted takeoff and landing exercises on the Liaoning aircraft carrier in waters south of Okinawa Prefecture on…
EXPLAINER: Why frustration lingers in Okinawa 50 years later
Okinawa on Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan on May 15, 1972, ending 27 years of…
The Japanese hunger striker demanding an end to US bases in Okinawa
As island prepares to mark 50 years since Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty, Jinshiro Motoyama is in no mood…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
80% positive on development of Okinawa Pref. since 1972
About 80% of people in the nation said that Okinawa Prefecture has been developing steadily in the 50 years since…
China says warned U.S. warship as it transited Taiwan Strait
China's military said on Wednesday that it had monitored and warned a U.S. warship that had sailed through the sensitive…
Get all your news in one place