Carrying a Torch for Okinawa

A long-time Okinawa resident is hoping the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020 will help promote international understanding. Former athlete Chosei Afuso, 75, is uniquely placed as a participant in the torch relay that preceded Japan’s first host Olympics in 1964. These days, he is an activist with a message about his beloved home.

When the Olympic flame passed through every prefecture in Japan more than a half-century ago, the islands that make up Okinawa were under American rule. Afuso remembers the path he took during the 1964 relay and describes the torch he carried that day as “my treasure.”

The Olympic flame arrived in Okinawa about a month before the Games began. It was a special time for the region that was still under US rule following the end of World War Two. A quarter of Okinawa's residents were killed in the war, including Afuso’s father.

Afuso channeled his grief into athletics and his success in track and field led to an offer to carry the torch. At the time, Okinawa residents were prohibited from displaying the Japanese flag, except on national holidays. But during the torch relay, the US government allowed an exception.

“I felt that Okinawa was once again part of Japan,” remembers Afuso. “I never expected to be welcomed in that way. Looking at everyone, I was so moved, I couldn't hold back tears."

The Olympic enthusiasm soon wore off after the Games as the Vietnam War shifted into full swing and American warplanes began departing from Okinawa’s US bases.

Afuso didn't want his homeland to play a hand in war again. He devoted himself to a civil movement demanding that Okinawa be returned to Japan, and all plots of land used for US bases be given back to their original owners.

In 1972, part of that wish came true when Okinawa was returned to Japan. However, most of the US bases remained on the island and continue to this day. Many people in Okinawa continue to call for their removal with concerns over a series of accidents and crimes perpetrated by US military personnel over the years.

In less than three years, the Olympic torch will pass through Okinawa once again. Afuso hopes it will allow the prefecture to highlight its cause to a larger audience. "The Olympics are a symbol of peace, right? Through the torch relay, I want people to know more about Okinawa, and the reality we face," he says. And if that happens, Afuso says he will regard the Tokyo Olympics as a success.