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Commemorating the Battle of Okinawa

Jun. 23, 2016

People in southern Japan are remembering the Battle of Okinawa -- one of the bloodiest in World War Two.

On this date in 1945, the Imperial Japanese military ended major operations against US forces. In the preceding months, the battle had raged, killing over 200,000 people -- half of them civilians.

A ceremony marking the 71st anniversary was held at the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, the place known as the last battlefield. Over 4,000 people attended, including US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy.

At noon, people observed a moment of silence.

Elementary school student Risa Nakama read a poem she wrote. It relates how her grandfather was wounded in the battle as well as her wishes for the future.

"I think the loud cries of the cicadas are not the anguish of the victims of the war, but they are the long-lasting cries for peace flying toward the vast skies to let us know how great and important peace is," said Risa Nakama, a student at Kin Elementary School.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga read a peace declaration. He brought up the recent murder of a local woman. A former US Marine working at an American base was arrested in the case.

"Because of the vast US military bases here, incidents and accidents have occurred repeatedly over many years. People in Okinawa are shaken by the recent heinous and violent crime and are feeling uneasy and very angry," Onaga said.

He once again called for the prefecture's burden to be lightened. Okinawa hosts a large proportion of American military facilities in Japan.

The woman's death has fuelled public resentment about the presence of the US military. Many residents also want Washington and Tokyo to scrap a plan to move a major US base to the northern part of the island.

They demand that the Marine air station be moved out of the prefecture altogether.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration says the planned relocation within the prefecture is the only viable option, but efforts will be made to reduce Okinawa's overall burden.

"We must take seriously the fact that even now, more than 70 years after the war, Okinawa carries a major burden of hosting US bases. The entire country will continue to do what it can to reduce that burden step by step," Abe said.

Abe says his government will take necessary measures to stop violent crimes in the prefecture.

NHK World's chief correspondent Yoichiro Tateiwa joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Yoi, what was the mood in Okinawa today?

Tateiwa: This is a special day for the people of Okinawa. It's a solemn day when people remember those who died at the war. But the mood is different this year. Anger over US bases is rising. It's triggered by the death of a local woman. The 20-year-old woman was murdered in April. Police arrested a former US marine. He works at an American base. People in Okinawa just didn't look back at the past on this special day. They're also thinking about the present-day reality of the heavy US military presence.

The Battle and Its Impact

Okinawa was the site of one of the fiercest battles of World War II. Today, the prefecture hosts many US military bases.

The existence of US forces places a big burden on the people of the island prefecture.

The United States and its allies launched the massive operation in March 1945.

The allies considered Okinawa a strategic point for invading Japan’s main islands in the last stages of World War II.

"Okinawa is the crucial battle line. Our Kamikaze troops are striking the enemy," a news anchor said at the time.

Japan’s military leaders ordered their troops to prolong the battle. They wanted to bide gain time before the US attacked mainland Japan.

Japanese officers pulled thousands of civilians into the fight, including women and teens. The deadly sweeps continued until the end of the battle.

The Japanese commanders in Okinawa ended the organized combat on June 23, 1945. Japan surrendered one and a half months after combat in Okinawa ended.

Japan signed a peace treaty with the Allied Countries and gained independence.

Japan also signed a security treaty with the US. It allows US forces to stay in Japan. Okinawa was separated from other parts of Japan and remained under US rule.

In the 1950s, anti-US military sentiment flared up in mainland Japan following the fatal shooting of a Japanese woman by a US soldier.

The US military decided to relocate its bases from the mainland to Okinawa.

The move succeeded in ridding people in mainland Japan of frustrations with the US military, but forced the people of Okinawa to shoulder the burden.

"Today, Okinawa has returned to the mainland," Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato said in 1972.

Okinawa was returned from US rule that year, and came under Japanese administration.

Okinawa's Troubled History
Rikako Takada

The US base situation in Okinawa hasn't changed.

Okinawa hosts 74% of US military bases in Japan. For people there, it's too much.

"We shoulder a much heavier burden than mainland Japan," says one local resident.

"These are huge bases on such a small island and people outside Okinawa don't care. We are the ones discriminated against," says another.

People oppose more than just the bases. Accidents, as well as crimes caused by US military personnel and civilian staff are a major issue.

The recent murder of a local woman triggered a huge protest Sunday. Police have arrested a base worker who used to be a Marine.

The protesters say American troops enjoy unfair privileges, like the right not to be taken into custody by local police unless they're indicted.

A US official said after the protest that Washington is willing to consider whether the Status of Forces Agreement needs to be changed.

But as the issue of the bases drags on, the people of Okinawa will likely have to cope with the US military presence for the foreseeable future.

Shibuya: The US calls Okinawa the keystone of the Pacific. So how important a role does it play in American security policy in the region?

Tateiwa: The islands have been a crucial strategic base for the US ever since the Battle of Okinawa 71 years ago. American forces launched attacks on mainland Japan from Okinawa in the last stages of the war. And after that, the bases there played a key role in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.

This is a map of Japan. Okinawa is in the southwest. As you can see, it's an island chain. Okinawa makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area. But it hosts 74 percent of US military facilities in Japan. There are 2 major air bases in the prefecture.

We spoke with an expert on security issues.

"Okinawa plays an extremely important role as a frontline base to ward off threats in this region. After winning World War II, the US seized land in Okinawa and built bases as it wanted. That's why building bases in Okinawa was ideal for the US."
Bonji Ohara / Tokyo Foundation

Tateiwa: The more the US places importance on Okinawa, the heavier the burden becomes for the people there. The priority for Gov. Onaga is revising the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA. It spells out how US military personnel are treated in Japan.

Beppu: Prime Minister Abe said at today's ceremony that he will work to reduce the burden of American military bases on Okinawa. He mentioned that the US and Japan have already started talking about revising SOFA.

Tateiwa: The Okinawa side is particularly interested in changing the articles concerning crimes and accidents involving American military personnel. Japan has no right to investigate members of the US forces on duty when such incidents took place.

In 2004, a helicopter based at Futenma Air Station crashed at a nearby university and went up in flames. Citing the SOFA, the US military immediately sealed off the campus. Not even local police could access the site.

Also, local police have no right to arrest off-duty US military personnel. There had been cases where a serviceman or woman who committed a crime evaded arrest by escaping to an American military facility.

Three American soldiers raped a school girl in Okinawa in 1995. The US military cited SOFA and refused to hand over the suspects to local police. That made the people of Okinawa more angry than ever. The United States later promised to improve how the agreement functions.

The American military has made the concession of handing over people suspected of committing vicious crimes. That's why the suspect in the most recent case was handed over to local police. But that's only an improvement in how the agreement is applied. There's no guarantee that will always be the case.

Beppu: Would revising SOFA satisfy the people of Okinawa?

Tateiwa: Prime Minister Abe says only the parts that deal with people who work at US bases would be revised. Such individuals would be excluded from protection under SOFA. Unless such incidents and accidents come to an end, it will be difficult for people in Okinawa to be satisfied.

Onaga says if the presence of the US military is essential to Japan’s security, the burden of hosting it should be shared by every part of the country -- not just Okinawa. Many people that I spoke with say Japanese leaders should work harder to improve the situation. If they don't, many will feel that Okinawa is again being sacrificed to protect the rest of the country, just like 71 years ago.