Okinawa 50 yrs since return / Experts stress geopolitical importance at symposium

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Michael Jonathan Green gives a keynote lecture remotely during a Yomiuri Shimbun symposium on Okinawa in Naha on Tuesday.

NAHA — The significance of Okinawa amid the increasingly severe security environment in East Asia was one of the main themes at a Yomiuri Shimbun symposium held in Naha Tuesday, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan on May 15.

Speakers also discussed promotion measures for the prefecture at the symposium, which was titled “Okinawa’s Past Half Century and Japan’s Future.”

Michael Jonathan Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) stressed the importance of Okinawa amid the military rise of China and North Korea in his keynote lecture.

“The geographic location of Okinawa in the midst of this geopolitical competition makes it more important than ever, as a base of operations for Japan’s [self-defense] forces and U.S. forces to protect the free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Green, who is the CSIS senior vice president for Asia, Japan chair, and Henry A. Kissinger chair.

Regarding U.S. bases in Okinawa, Green said, “I think the U.S. and Japanese governments should look to see with Okinawa’s leaders what we can do to reduce even further the burden that’s borne while moving into a new era where the security of the region is enhanced by new operational concepts.”

In a panel discussion titled “Strategic Stability in East Asia and Okinawa,” Shinsuke J. Sugiyama, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States, spoke about the planned relocation of the U.S. military’s Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to an area off the Henoko coast in Nago.

“It is important to strengthen the Japan-U.S. security arrangement by addressing [the problem of U.S.] military bases being concentrated [in Okinawa Prefecture] and eliminating as soon as possible dangers linked to the Futenma [Air Station].”

Akiko Yamamoto, an associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus, said although many people in Okinawa understand the need for U.S. bases, something must be done to reduce the complaints and concerns of Okinawans regarding issues that impact their daily lives, such as lack of sleep due to noise pollution.

Regarding the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the security environment in East Asia, Bonji Ohara, senior fellow of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said the international community’s united stand on sanctions against Moscow has made it more difficult for China to invade Taiwan.

In a panel discussion on the development and promotion of the region going forward, Motoshige Itoh, former chairperson of the Cabinet Office’s council for promoting Okinawa, cited Singapore as a good example for future development, as the city-state does not have a huge population or manufacturing industry. “As an Asian hub, what [Okinawa] does going forward will be very important,” he said.

Miki Fuchibe, chairperson of Okinawa Association of Corporate Executives (OACE), highlighted some of the prefecture’s positive aspects, such as research conducted by Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University and the region’s birthrate, which is the highest in Japan.

“We have to make the most of Okinawa’s advantages and uniqueness,” Fuchibe said.

Meanwhile, former Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine called for the central government and Okinawa Prefecture to set up a council in which Cabinet ministers and the prefectural governor could discuss promotion measures and other issues. “I hope they will nurture such a relationship,” he said.