May 15 may mark the 45th 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 there 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 12, 13 and 14. There are three courses, in Henoko, Yomitan and Itoman. About 3,000 participants from Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan are expected to participate.