Okinawa 50 years since return / On the Miracle Mile, the day before the return of sovereignty

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kokusai-dori street in Naha is seen on May 14, 1972, the day before the return of Okinawa to Japan. Driving on the right side of the road continued for another six years until 1978.

Okinawa will mark the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan on May 15, 2022. Okinawa Prefecture, which experienced fierce ground fighting during World War II, has since become one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations, but challenges remain stemming from the high concentration of U.S. military bases still there and a lack of economic independence. In this series, we look at the past and present of the archipelago through photographs.

In the black and white photo, “Okinawa Prefecture” signs line the side of a road on which cars are driving on the right side. It is Kokusai-dori street in Naha, and the shot was taken by a Yomiuri Shimbun correspondent on May 14, 1972. Occupied by the United States at the time, Okinawa would be returned to Japan the next day. The rainy season had started and it would be another wet day.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Present-day Kokusai-dori street on Dec. 9, now lined with palm trees

Lined with all sorts of shops, Kokusai-dori was called the “Miracle Mile” because it symbolized the islands’ recovery from the aftermath of the Battle of Okinawa. The willow trees seen along the sidewalk had grown from saplings donated in 1959 by a shopping association in Ginza.

The Naha city bulletin reported earlier that year that 100 willow trees would soon be arriving from Tokyo, in response to a request from the Naha mayor “for Ginza’s famous willow trees because the city had lost its greenery during the war.”

“The shop owners used to take good care of the willow trees in front of their store,” said Munehiro Owan, the 79-year-old second-generation owner of a tailor shop established in 1955. The street would draw customers from all over Okinawa, and even U.S. military officers came to get tailor-made suits.

Half a century has passed since the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. The willow trees have been replaced with tropical palm trees, and tourists flow in from the mainland.

Although the foot traffic has decreased due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is still the preeminent street of Okinawa.