Okinawa 50 yrs since return: National political affairs / Inaugural agency head supported development with ‘sense of atonement’

Courtesy of Okinawa Prefectural Archives
Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office Sadanori Yamanaka, second from right, shakes hands with Chobyo Yara, who later became Okinawa governor, during a visit to Okinawa on May 19, 1970.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan. This is the second installment of a series that looks at the politics surrounding Okinawa’s subsequent development and issues relating to the presence of U.S. bases.

On May 11, 2004, about 1,400 people gathered in the Okinawa Prefectural Budokan hall in Naha to pay their respects at a memorial service for Sadanori Yamanaka — a Diet member elected from a constituency in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Yamanaka was the first director general of the Okinawa Development Agency and had been named the first honorary citizen of Okinawa Prefecture in 2003. He died in February 2004.

“He worked passionately for the promotion and development of Okinawa, and laid the foundations of our prefecture,” Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said during the service.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroshi Moriyama

Hiroshi Moriyama, executive acting chairperson of the Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council, won the race for Yamanaka’s constituency following his death. Moriyama said Yamanaka felt an obligation to help people living in Okinawa.

“His philosophy was that the government should take action based on a sense of atonement to the people of Okinawa Prefecture, and that whatever was done for them, it could never be too much,” said Moriyama, 76.

Yamanaka wanted to make amends for what Okinawa had been through, going all the way back to the 1609 invasion of the Ryukyu Islands by the forces of the Satsuma feudal domain, now Kagoshima Prefecture. Yamanaka also felt deep remorse that the islands, during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing days of the Pacific War, were turned into a bulwark for a decisive battle on mainland Japan. Furthermore, he treasured his relationship with Chobyo Yara, who was the first Okinawa governor when it returned to Japanese rule and had been a teacher at the school Yamanaka attended in Taiwan. Yamanaka and the liberal Yara built up a strong relationship of trust.

Yamanaka’s first cabinet position came in 1970 when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato appointed him director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, a post that also was in charge of Okinawa affairs. He simultaneously held the post of head of the Okinawa Development Agency launched when Okinawa reverted to Japanese rule on May 15, 1972. He flexed his political muscles to support Okinawa during preparations for its reversion and when promoting its development in the following years.

Yamanaka pressured the Finance Ministry to provide the highest levels of subsidies for the construction of roads, ports and other infrastructure. He also paved the way for allocating government money to restoring structures including the main building of Shuri castle, which burned down during the Battle of Okinawa. Although Yamanaka also came in for criticism that preferential treatment such as subsidies and special provisions in the tax system subsequently hampered Okinawa’s independence, he never budged from his approach.

Moriyama vividly remembers one particular episode that exemplified Yamanaka’s devotion to Okinawa. At a meeting in his Kagoshima constituency, a former local government leader pleaded with Yamanaka to give “about one-tenth of what you do for Okinawa to your local area.” This enraged Yamanaka. “You all know nothing about Okinawa’s history,” he replied.

“He did this even though it would not bring him more votes,” said Moriyama, who attended the meeting. “He genuinely cared about Okinawa.”

In an autobiography that looked back on his career, Yamanaka offered some advice to cabinet ministers in charge of Okinawa affairs. “Put yourself in the shoes of the Okinawan people. Look at Tokyo through the eyes of the Okinawan people,” he wrote.

Yamanaka also spelled out a key frustration: “Unfortunately, the minister changes almost every year, so it’s hard to get anything substantial done,” he wrote.