7 Things You Should Know About Okinawan History Before the Gubernatorial Election

A big election in Japan will be held this Sunday. It’s Okinawa Prefecture's gubernatorial election. There are 4 candidates. One is supported by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito. Another is backed by the parties that were behind the late former Governor. The election is attracting attention not only from within the country but also from the US. To understand why, we share some basic information about the prefecture.

1. Where is Okinawa?

Okinawa is located at the southwestern tip of Japan and has 160 islands. Over 1.4 million people live there. It's just 2-and-a-half hours by airplane from Tokyo, and one of the most popular holiday destinations in the country, with almost 10 million tourists a year.

2. The history of Okinawa

Okinawa used to be a kingdom called Ryukyu. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), it became Okinawa Prefecture.

At the end of World War 2, the main island of Okinawa became a battlefield. The allied forces disembarked. The battle of Okinawa went on for about 3 months. Over 200,000 people died.

In 1952, due to the Peace Treaty signed in San Francisco, full sovereignty of Japan was officially recognized. However, Okinawa was still under US control. The US built military bases there, and the number of bases increased as American units were moved from the Japanese mainland.

In 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japan, as many Okinawans had wished.

3. Okinawan economy

After the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972, the Japanese government set aside a huge budget to advance infrastructure development across the island. The amount allocated under the Act on Special Measures up until fiscal 2017 was around 12.2 trillion yen, or about 107.4 billion dollars.

At present, the Okinawan economy is heavily dependent on the tourism industry. With the expansion of air routes mainly within Asia, coupled with more cruise ships making port calls, a record 9.58 million people visited Okinawa in fiscal 2017. That was a 5th straight annual record.

However, the per capita income in the prefecture remains the lowest in Japan, at 2,166,000 yen. The ratio of children living in poverty is 29.9 percent -- that exceeds the national average by more than 10 points.

4. US military bases concentrated in Okinawa

Due to 27 years of postwar occupation by US forces, many bases remained in Okinawa when the island was returned to Japan. Now, 70 percent of all US military facilities in Japan are located there, even though the prefecture makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area.

5. Accidents related to US military bases

Okinawa has suffered numerous incidents involving aircraft noise and accidents related to the US military. According to prefectural authorities, ever since the return of Okinawa to Japan, more than 700 accidents related to US military aircraft have been reported.

A US military helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University in August 2004. The aircraft struck a wall and exploded on campus. The debris and parts of the helicopter scattered.

In October 2017, a US Marine Corps helicopter made an emergency landing and burst into flames in a privately-owned field. And in December 2017, a window weighing about 8 kilograms fell from a US military helicopter onto the playground of an elementary school next to the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station.

6. Cases involving US military bases

There have also been crimes by US military personnel. Prefectural authorities report around 6,000 crimes have been committed by US military personnel between the period of Okinawa's return in 1972 and August 2018. About 10 percent of these cases were serious crimes such as murder, robbery or rape.

In September 1995, a girl in the 6th grade at elementary school was assaulted by 3 US military personnel. The US military, however, refused to hand over the suspects to Japan based on the Bilateral Status of Forces Agreement. 85,000 local residents gathered at a massive rally in protest, escalating calls for the reorganization and scaling down of US military bases.

7. Plan for Futenma Base relocation

The 1995 assault case prompted Japan and the US to agree the following year to advance the reorganization and scaling down of 11 US military bases in Okinawa.

That included the relocation of the Futenma Air Base in Ginowan City. Some say Futenma is the world's most dangerous base as it is situated right next to a residential area.

The governments of US and Japan decided on the relocation of the base to a coastal area of Henoko in the city of Nago. Okinawan residents have been split on their opinion of the relocation, since it is still within the prefecture. The relocation has been one of the major contentions in the Okinawan gubernatorial election.