Dubai: The Japanese island of Okinawa, in the Yellow Sea, is home to about 26,000 military personnel. These personnel are all American.
Okinawa bears the brunt of hosting multiple large US military bases, in place since the United States’ 27-year occupation of the island from 1945 to 1972. The military presence has sparked multiple protests over the years, the most explosive of which was after the 1995 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US military men.
Another assault, this one more recent, has brought the resentment back up bigger and more enraged than ever.
The rape and murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro by a civilian base worker has triggered an outcry amongst the residents of Okinawa, who are fed up with what they consider to be a nuisance. The multiple military outposts have been a source of crime, pollution, and general inconvenience over the past few years, not to mention the risks they pose to the environment – namely the potential extinction of the dugong, a sea-mammal related to the manatee.
Okinawa residents say they are tired of being treated as second-class citizens, with little support from the government in Tokyo and little effort to discipline the military personnel that have invaded their land.
“Anti-base sentiments are a longstanding grievance fed by the disproportionate base-hosting burden thrust on islanders – 75% of all US facilities in Japan – and the crimes this involves,” Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at Japan’s Temple University, told Gulf News.
The relationship between Japan at large, the United States, and Okinawa dates back to the Second World War, when US troops invaded the island in an attempt to curb Japan’s rising imperialism.
Both sides’ accounts of what happened to the civilians of Okinawa differ, but what cannot be disputed is the massive number of lives lost and the almost-certain human rights violations against the Okinawan people that both Japanese and US troops are guilty of.
Following Japan’s crushing defeat after the Second World War, the United States remained in Okinawa and built numerous military bases and outposts on the island. They ruled – or acted as “trustees” – over the island for 27 years until returning the island to Japan in 1972.
The military bases have remained, despite ever-growing resentment against them.
The US contends that the strategic location of the island – North Korea, China, and the South China Sea are close by – makes it invaluable towards maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, they have yet to justify why they need quite so many of them. There are 22 – known – bases in Japan overall. Ten of them are in Okinawa, making the island host over half the servicemen based in the country at large.
Residents complain about the noise, and a rising wave of criminality from the servicemen.
About a month after the arrest of Kenneth Shinzato, a 32-year-old former U.S. Marine working as a computer and electrical contractor on the Kadena base, for the rape and murder of Shimabukuro, a petty officer was involved in a drunk driving accident in which two residents were injured.
The incident fuelled the rage and consternation the Okinawans have been feeling.
The residents have protested the bases, especially the contentious Futenema base in the south, carrying signs that read, “Murderer Marines. Out of Okinawa” and “Our anger is past its limit.”
There have been dozens of protests over the years, especially after the 1995 case, and attempts by both the residents and the in-term governors of Okinawa to have the bases removed and to prevent building new ones.
These have yet to prove fruitful. Often, they eventually die down, only to rise up again the next time the military more radically infringes on the rights of the people.
This year, Okinawans have also taken their anger to the July 10 Upper House elections.
“The Okinawan voters ousted Abe’s Minister for Okinawan Affairs, signalling their displeasure with Abe’s support for building a new base in their prefecture and anger over the recent rape and murder of a young woman by an American base worker,” said Kingston.
Clearly, residents’ patience is at its limit, requiring both the US and the Japanese governments to tread carefully as tensions in the region rise.