Ceremony marks 50 years since Okinawa’s return

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Emperor delivers a speech online during the Okinawa Reversion 50th Anniversary Ceremony in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Sunday.

Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary of its return to Japanese control on Sunday.

A commemorative ceremony was jointly held by the central government and the Okinawa prefectural government at the Okinawa Convention Center in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, and at the Grand Prince Hotel Shin Takanawa in the Takanawa district of Tokyo. The two venues were connected online.

This was the first time since the prefecture’s return in 1972 for a commemorative ceremony to be held simultaneously in Tokyo and Okinawa Prefecture.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attended the event at the Okinawa venue. “I feel that a new era has begun in which Okinawa will strongly take wing in the Asia-Pacific region and the world,” Kishida said.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki said, “The people of Okinawa continue to be forced to bear an excessive burden of U.S. bases.” Tamaki also urged the government “to ensure that the entire population of Japan understands the significance of the return [of Okinawa] to Japan, and the importance of lasting peace.”

The Emperor delivered a speech online in which he said, “I sincerely hope that the people’s thoughts and efforts up to now will be soundly passed on and that a prosperous future will be built in Okinawa.”

Senior officials were present at the Tokyo venue, including the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president of the House of Councillors, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel.

Okinawa was under U.S. control for 27 years after the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. In June 1971, Tokyo and Washington signed the Okinawa reversion agreement, paving the way for the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty on May 15, 1972.

Heavy burden of U.S. bases

Following the return of Okinawa to Japan, the government began working to reconstruct the prefecture, and the state’s policy of focusing on infrastructure development made it one of the leading tourist destinations in Japan.

However, about 70% of all U.S. military facilities in Japan are still concentrated in Okinawa, posing the challenge of how to reduce the resulting burden on Okinawan residents.

Okinawa suffered tremendous damage in the Battle of Okinawa at the end of World War II. A significant amount of its land was forcibly expropriated by the occupying forces under U.S. control and many military facilities were constructed.

As of January this year, the area used by U.S. military facilities in the prefecture totaled 18,483 hectares, down about 34% from 50 years ago. However, Okinawa’s percentage of all such facilities nationwide increased from 58.7% to 70.3% over the same period, due to the consolidation and downsizing of U.S. facilities in the rest of Japan.

In contrast, infrastructure has been improved in such areas as roads and water supply, and the economy has developed, especially in the tourism industry. In fiscal 2018, Okinawa Prefecture’s gross domestic product expanded to ¥4.5 trillion, about 10 times the level 50 years ago.

However, Okinawa’s disparities with other regions in Japan have not been eliminated — the prefecture’s per capita income continues to be among the lowest in Japan, and the child poverty rate is about twice that of the nation as a whole.