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Japan’s Okinawa marks half century since U.S. handover as regional tensions grow

FILE PHOTO: Tourists walk on the street in the central district on Miyako Island, Okinawa prefecture, Japan April 21, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

TOKYO (Reuters) – The Japanese island chain of Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary on Sunday of the end of U.S. occupation and its return to Japan with ceremonies and celebrations amid growing worry about their proximity to an increasingly assertive China.

Okinawa, a string of tropical islands off far southwest Japan much closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, suffered massive devastation in World War Two. Two months of bloody battles between U.S. and Japanese forces left as many as a third of its people dead. Nearly 30 years of U.S. rule followed.

On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan in what was seen as a hopeful step forward from the war’s painful legacy. But today they still host the majority of U.S. military bases in Japan, a devil’s bargain that has provided jobs but also fed worries about crime and military accidents.

Now, as China grows increasingly assertive in the Pacific region and tensions rise around nearby Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, Okinawans are concerned that they could once more end up on the front lines – especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“These are small islands,” said a protester on the island of Miyako, host to Japan’s newest army base, declining to give her name.

“Building up a military base will not protect them but rather make them a target of attack.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will take part in ceremonies to commemorate the handover on Okinawa, while Emperor Naruhito will make comments via videolink from Tokyo.

Okinawans have long resented having to bear the outsize burden of hosting bases, and the issue has occasionally sparked massive protests. Of 812 Okinawans polled by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they strongly opposed U.S. bases; only a quarter of 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.

Tensions are likely to rise given that lawmakers for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have said they want a commitment to more defence spending, including missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil – missiles that could be deployed on Okinawa. The country is revising its national security strategy this year.

Okinawa’s current governor, Denny Tamaki, would like the base footprint reduced, but plans to move some bases off Okinawa, including sending some Marines to Guam, are moving slowly.

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