May 15 may mark the 42nd anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion from U.S. control to Japan, but for many this historical date may go largely unnoticed due to a conspicuous lack of fanfare.
On that day in 1972, the Ryukyu government, under U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James B. Lampert, shifted to the Okinawa Prefectural Government of Japan. The local currency changed from U.S. dollars to Japanese yen. It was a momentous occasion in more ways than one.
It may have ended nearly three decades of U.S. trusteeship that began after World War II. But it also sparked protests – initially violent ones – by many who felt slighted by the U.S.-Japan agreement to let American military bases remain on Okinawa. Like the protests, the sentiment that the reversion was only partial is still held by some today.
For many like Okinawa Prefectural Museum curator Shinobu Ishigaki, however, the date marks, “when Okinawa was liberated from American control and returned to its home country, Japan,” nonetheless.
“Since it had a significant impact on Okinawans and their society,” he added, “May 15 is considered one of the most important days by nearly every Okinawan age 40 or older who remembers the event.”
So, why are the no big “Independence Day” celebrations?
“From my personal perspective, there is no unifying principle under which Okinawans can celebrate 5/15,” said Yoshiaki Hiruma, of Okinawa Prefecture’s historiographical division. “Except for some commemoration ceremonies held by national and local governments for the 40th anniversary (in 2012), there have not been any big ceremonies or events commemorating it in Okinawa.”
That is probably because Okinawa’s prolonged history with U.S. military bases, along with the economic disparity between it and the rest of Japan, give locals little reason to celebrate, according to Ishigaki. This is in spite of the improvements Okinawans gained after 27 years of U.S. trusteeship.
“Throughout the era, Okinawans were not allowed to visit mainland of Japan without a passport, and they were not able to elect their own Ryukyu government chairman until 1960,” Ishigaki said. After the reversion, the government of Japan spurred Okinawa development with tax breaks, public works projects and other incentives. The Okinawan way of life improved notably, but the average income in the prefecture remains one of the lowest in Japan.
“Manufacturing industries that can sustain the prefectural economy have still not risen,” Ishigaki said. “Okinawa’s economy depends largely on restaurant and other service industries, making it very vulnerable to economic fluctuations.”
The U.S. military presence is another reversion-related issue for some Okinawans – especially some old enough to remember the event. In 1969, Ryukyu Government Chairman Chobyo Yara petitioned Prime Minister Eisaku Sato to make it clear to President Richard Nixon that Okinawans did not want U.S. military bases to remain on Okinawa – to no avail, according to Hiruma.
In June of 1971, the Okinawa Reversion Agreement was signed, and the handoff of control took place a year later. Under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the large U.S. military presence was to remain even after the reversion, despite protests by Yara and other Okinawans. Immediately after the 1971 signing, thousands of students and other dissenters protested – in some cases violently – in Naha and Tokyo.
While the 1972 reversion ceremony was celebrated with fanfare in Tokyo, Stars and Stripes reported on May 17 that, “In Okinawa, more than 5,000 demonstrations gathered in Naha’s Yogi Park to hear anti-U.S. military polemics. … There were dozens of other protest demonstrations, rallies and marches … Most of the factions were protesting the retention of U.S. military installations on the Ryukyu Islands after reversion.”
Today, 73.8 percent of the U.S. bases in Japan occupy 10.2 percent of Okinawa, according 2013 Okinawa Prefecture data.
“So, for many Okinawans, the reversion was never complete,” Ishigaki said. “That is why Okinawans cannot unite around celebrating this day, although most of us (78 percent, according to a 2012 NHK poll) feel the reversion itself was good.”
There is, however, one reversion-related event that has taken place on Okinawa annually since 1978 – the Okinawa Peace March. But it does not commemorate what the reversion was; it’s in protest of what it was not.
“We wanted a peaceful Okinawa without U.S. military bases,” said Satoru Oshiro of Okinawa Peace Action Center, which hosts the yearly three-day march. “Since the actual reversion was far from what we wanted, we started marching on the day of the reversion to bring attention to the issue and our wish for peace. We have been doing it ever since.”
This year, the Okinawa Peace March is slated for May 16, 17 and 18. There are three courses, in Henoko, Yomitan and Itoman. About 3,000 participants from Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan are expected to participate.
DO YOU REMEMBER OKINAWA'S REVERSION, AND WHAT DO YOU THINK OF OKINAWA-JAPAN-U.S. TIES TODAY?
Editor’s note: Opinions about Okinawa’s reversion to Japan are varied, and can be as complex as those about military bases on the island. Writer Takahiro Takiguchi asked around, and this is what he came up with.
“I remember it well. I was a ninth grade student. It rained heavily that day. I can’t forget that my father went to a bank and exchanged his dollars and brought back yen. I was very impressed by how colorful the yen bills where.
Today, although there are some issues relating to U.S. Bases on Okinawa, things are going well in general. I hope that we can maintain this alliance.”
- Masaaki Ishiki, Okinawa, 56, U.S. base employee
“I recognize the day, but I don’t remember it because I was just a small kid in 1972. Personally, I do not have special sentiments about it … but I understand it means a lot to those who experienced the war. …
I’m afraid that Japan acts like a subordinate to the U.S. Culturally, Japanese tend to feel that their counterpart being tough and demanding in negotiations are angry and try to reduce the tension by conceding to the other side. The Japanese Government’s mentality has not changed very much since Commodore Perry first arrived at Edo Japan. It’s shameful.
Besides the military issue, I think Okinawans generally have positive feelings toward the U.S.
The current governor of Okinawa is pro-(Tokyo), which I’m afraid does not necessarily represent the majority of Okinawans. But people have divided opinions about base related issues. As for mainlanders, they are ignorant and mostly indifferent to the base issues. Many of them, I would imagine, believe in the myth that Okinawans need bases for economic reasons and U.S. will always defend Japan in an emergency.”
- Sachiko Miyazato, Okinawa, 40’s, Self-employed
“It happened before I was born. I am more interested in U.S. and Japanese government negotiations than the reversion. All my life I have always considered Okinawa to be part of Japan and an island blessed with natural beauties.
The relationships are not bad. When The Great East Japan Earthquake broke out the U.S. supported Japan. Definitely, we cannot change the past. So, I think the relationship is traditional conventional. But we can change the future. I hope that we will build a better relation for the future.”
- Junta Okuma, Okinawa
“I don’t remember it because I was not born yet, but I feel glad about Okinawa’s return to Japan.”
I think there are perspective differences between people in Okinawa and other regions in Japan. We need to learn more about Okinawa. As for relations with U.S., I hope it will remain good so we can talk on equal footing.”
- Aki Sasaki, Chiba, 21, Student
“I remember the reversion of Okinawa as a historic event in May of 1972. It was during the Vietnam War era when radical student movements rallied against the extension of Japan-U.S. Security. We could not avoid the radicalism that was a reaction to unclear negotiations between Japan and the U.S on the security treaty and military bases.
I expect the geopolitical importance of Okinawa will increase in terms of logistics and supply for maintaining the military facilities, while at the same time we need to spend more money to develop Okinawa. That makes it very hard for national leaders to guide the country. In general, Japanese may continue to think of Okinawa as just tourist attraction. I think Japan should ensure Okinawa Prefecture has more flexibility as a local government to cope with various issues on the island as the international military balance surrounding it rapidly changes. I hope Japanese leaders will let Okinawans speak out more aggressively for future generations, and work with them to deal with these issues.
- Yutaka Suzuki, Tokyo, 65, Marine engineer
“I don’t know about that time, but I have always thought of Okinawa as part of Japan throughout history. So, the word ‘reversion’ sounds a little strange. But I know that Okinawans have met various tragedies. So, with the 42nd anniversary, I think we should remember the history of Okinawa.
Watching news related to Futenma in Okinawa, I feel the relation between Japan and U.S. is not equal, but Japan seems subordinate to the U.S.”
- Issei Arikado, Tokyo, 21, Student
“I remember. I was a college student at the time. The campus was filled with posters saying, “Take back occupied Okinawa!” In February 1973, I went to Okinawa by sea with one of my friends. We got to know an Okinawan girl on the ship and stayed at her home. I woke up to the sound of a bugle. While walking on the street, GIs whistled at us and asked to get on the jeep. Okinawans on the street advised me not to. I saw a chaotic market where both dollars and yen were used. These are old memories for me, but I think these scenes are still a part of Okinawan’s daily routines.
I remember Okinawa when I see U.S. jet-fighters flying over my house in Machida. U.S. bases on Okinawa is an issue for all Japanese. If we need to keep the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, how the entire nation share in hosting U.S. bases? If we don’t keep the treaty, how can we protect our country with a pacifist constitution that bans having a military? There are a lot of issues to consider. I think open discussion about the future is needed to build a new relationship – not the old ideology.”
- Emiko Kanai, Machida, 63, Housewife
“Yes, I was there on the ‘Rock’ at Reversion. I guess we called Okinawa the “Keystone of the Pacific” and it still is. We had alerts, curfews and riots in Koza and chaos coming from many different groups who did not want to revert back to Japan and wanted independence. I was a young company commander and many of my troops were on alert and working to aid the injured.
It is a new paradigm so the relationship needs to mature, but unfortunately Okinawa itself has been spoiled by both Japan and the U.S., and the feelings have gotten worse these days. Without financial aid to buy the people off, Okinawa could never retain the U.S. presence but this situation will never give a chance for Okinawa to mature.”
- Milton H. Isa, Tokyo, 66, Consultant
“I see there are difference in culture and language between mainland and Okinawa. I know there are lot of U.S. bases located on Okinawa, and I wonder and am interested in how Okinawans think about U.S.”
- Takayuki Mizuno, Tokyo, 20
“I was sophomore in high school. I didn’t pay much attention to the news since I didn’t know much about the reversion. But I remember my father said, ‘you can visit Okinawa without passport now.’ Later, I came to know people from Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture who came to Tokyo to work. They were talking with each other about how Okinawa should have become part of Taiwan instead of Japan. I learned they carried deep-rooted feelings of distrust for Japan. But now I feel it was good that Okinawa reverted to Japan; I think most Okinawans feel the same way.
I admit that the Japan-U.S. alliance is very important in today’s unstable international environment. But, considering the burden on Okinawa, mainland of Japan should take responsibility to lighten it by hosting more of the U.S. bases. I feel the attitude of the other prefectures who try to offload the responsibility on Okinawa only is unfair and unacceptable.”
- Yuji Kawabe, Yokosuka, 59, U.S. base employee
“Of course I don’t remember the incident, but, I feel it was good because many people wanted it.
There are a lot of issues, such as the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, but I feel we need to sustain the current situation. Today, the relations cannot be complete with just Okinawa, the U.S. and Japan. We need to think about relations with China, too.”
- Maho Motoyama, Kanagawa, 21, Student
“I do not remember the event itself as it was before my time, but I do feel like it was an important historical event and a milestone for the Japan- U.S. postwar relationship. Okinawa has a long and unique history and deep relations with Japan, so the return of it has held great importance.
The relationship has definitely underwent turbulent changes and has become rather complex. On one hand, it is of incredible strategic importance to the U.S. and also for the rest of East Asia and especially Japan, which has the Security Treaty signed with U.S. and are close partners in many different fields. On the other hand, the concentration of military bases and personnel is highest in Okinawa which does make it seem as if Okinawa is biting the bullet for the rest of Japan. … Okinawa is a culturally and naturally diverse and important part of Japan, but due to its uniqueness in terms of the issue that they are facing, it is a little hard to get the rest of Japan to relate to it. One thing is clear, however, and that is the fact that Okinawa is one of the key things holding together – and sometimes holding back – the further development of the US-Japan relations and should be given more attention from both sides.
- Norgaile Matuseviciute, Tokyo, 24, Office Worker