From a Bloody Invasion to a Hostile ‘Friendly’ Invasion: Okinawans lose patience with the US Military

Some 65,000 people turned out in Naha, Okinawa to protest against the continued American military presence on Japan’s southern island.  It follows the murder last month of an Okinawan woman, allegedly by a former US marine now working as a civilian contractor.

Crowds of people congregate to protest the presence of US military bases in Okinawa
Crowds of people congregate to protest the presence of US military bases in Okinawa

Approximately half of America’s 53,000 troops in Japan reside on Okinawa, much to the chagrin of the locals.  It had looked like things would change just a few years ago when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) stormed to power in Tokyo under the stewardship of Yukio Hatoyama.  One of the DPJ’s main pledges was to reduce the burden on the Okinawans having to host the bulk of American forces in Japan, with a particular emphasis on relocating the massive Futenma Air Base off the island.

Such intentions were not easy to follow through with, however, and were one of the key reasons why DPJ support soon plummeted, with factional infighting also contributing to a succession of leadership changes and a resurgence of support for the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the hawkish Shinzo Abe.

Futenma has been an American air base since the 1945 invasion of Okinawa
Futenma has been an American air base since the 1945 invasion of Okinawa

Abe is more selective in his interpretation of recent Japanese history and recognises the importance – both strategic and symbolic – of the American presence on Okinawa.  Indeed, it forms a cornerstone of post-WWII US-Japanese security relations and is something that neither Abe, nor President Barack Obama, wish to see overturned.

Protests over the US presence on Okinawa have been driven by local public opinion and NGOs, erupting intermittently over the last couple of decades. They peaked in 1995 when three American servicemen brutally raped a 12-year old girl on the island.  Foreign military ‘occupations’ tend to go hand-in-hand with unsavoury incidents, particularly when troops have a fair degree of freedom to engage in such acts.  Whilst an extreme example, the 1995 rape is just one of several occasions in Okinawa when American troops have conducted themselves with a dishonour not befitting of a supposed ally.

A protester burns an American flag on Okinawa after the 1995 rape incident
A protester burns an American flag on Okinawa after the 1995 rape incident

Of course, a ‘hostile’ American presence on Okinawa predates the last twenty years.  1945 saw a massive invasion of the island by 185,000 US Army and Marine Corps troops as Japan’s resistance in the Pacific Theater began to crumble.  Despite facing overwhelming odds, the Japanese defended the island with a ferocity almost unparalleled in recent history. They lost at least 75,000 killed (the bulk of their force), whilst some 20,000 Americans also died.  In addition, the toll on the civilian population was catastrophic, with upwards of 50,000 killed in the crossfire or committing suicide as the Americans finally broke through.

A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave
A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave

Such battles are not easily forgotten, whether US-Japan relations have entered a new era of friendship or not.  For many Okinawans, the US military presence has been both incessant and substantial, with few tangible benefits to show for it.

Abe is keen to bolster the US military alliance further, however, and these protests are a fly in the ointment.  With China acting increasingly assertively in the Asia-Pacific, and the North Korean nuclear threat remaining persistent and unpredictable, strong American backing remains critical because of the constitutional restrictions on Japan’s ability to wage war.

Both Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter have apologised for the latest tragedy in a bid to ease the pressure on Abe.  The Japanese Prime Minister will be expected to be strong in his condemnation of American actions on Okinawa, yet he is a belligerent character very unwilling to deviate from his personal political ideals.

It remains likely, then, that despite this show of indigenous force, the Okinawa protests will fall on deaf ears.  The bitter historical memories of bloody invasion, savage defiance and uneasy cooperation will continue to simmer as a resentment not formidable enough to sway the current regimes in Tokyo and Washington.  Until these governments are replaced with more amenable alternatives – and such a scenario is not inconceivable in the near future – the Okinawans will have to continue to grin and bear it.

US-Japan relations have strengthened under the stewardship of Obama and Abe
US-Japan relations have strengthened under the stewardship of Obama and Abe

What the ramifications will be for active American servicemen in Okinawa (if any) is undoubtedly a topic for closed-door discussions, the details of which we shall await to be leaked by those unscrupulous officials with a stake in the end result.

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Gesture of Respect Helps Bury Historical Enmity: the case of the Okinawa flag

An 87-year-old former US serviceman, with help from his tenacious granddaughter, has returned an annotated Japanese flag to the son of its original owner who died during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Fought between the 1st April and the 22nd June 1945, the Battle of Okinawa effectively served as the final stand by Japan’s imperial forces against the advancing US Army, which had swept across the Pacific during the previous three years. The brutality of the fighting on Okinawa cemented in legend the refusal of Japanese troops to surrender in the face of almost certain defeat and helped encourage the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to draw the war to a swift conclusion.

A massive American invasion force was required to uproot the Japanese from Okinawa
A massive American invasion force was required to uproot the Japanese from Okinawa

Atrocities committed by both Japanese and American forces on Okinawa have been widely-reported in history books and realised in brutal clarity in many war movies. Fighting in often humid conditions across difficult terrain, the battle for survival was immense and resulted in approximately 95,000 Japanese deaths and over 10,000 American fatalities.

Given such a brutal confrontation, it could be expected that a lasting enmity would exist between American and Japanese people. However, this has not generally been the case and the efforts of the former serviceman to return the Okinawa flag to Japan is a testament to the spirit of reconciliation that has developed between the two countries.

The Okinawa Flag Source: Asahi Shimbun
The Okinawa Flag
Source: Asahi Shimbun

In 1995, the Cornerstone of Peace monument was built on Okinawa at Itoman and it commemorates the lives of over 240,000 people who perished during the brutal battle, irrespective of their nationality, military rank or social assignation. When one compares these attempts to bury the hatchet over the past – whilst learning from the mistakes made – with Japan’s lack of progress in reconciling its wartime actions with its East Asian neighbours, the difference could not be more stark.

American and Japanese politicians and people have a more or less shared understanding of their wartime conflict, from the attacks on Pearl Harbour to the dropping of the devastating atomic bombs. This understanding has no doubt been fostered by America’s integral role in rebuilding and “westernising” Japan in the immediate post-WWII period.

When it comes to China, South Korea, or any other Asian country occupied by Japanese forces during WWII, however, such a level of mutual agreement on what happened is sorely missing. The result of this inability to confront the past with honesty and sincerity is a persisting mistrust between Japan and East Asia which hinders regional interdependence and cooperation.

Such a simple gesture as returning a long-forgotten flag helps reconcile the past for former enemies and their descendants. Similar sentiments between Japan and its neighbours remain disappointingly absent.