Friday, 15 February 2008

Okinawa


Kanagawa prefecture, where I live, is a little hot spot for US military activity. Jets and helicopter gunships fly by on a daily basis, on training missions from the local air base (at Zama); there is also a big naval base at Yokosuka where you can often see aircraft carriers and AEGIS cruisers resupplying (or doing whatever they do). After 60 years they're still here, and probably will be indefinitely; surprising as it may seem the Japanese government prefers to have a US military presence in the archipelago because it means they don't have to face up to one of their major long-term problems: the lack of a real army. While America has a stake here they can duck the issue, which they're more than happy to do.

Still, there are problems associated with this, especially for Okinawa. Okinawa was actually only 'returned' to Japanese sovereignty during the mid 1970s, and it still bears a disproportionate weight in terms of US military presence. (Despite having only about 1% of Japan's total land area, the prefecture has about 75% of all the land taken by the American armed forces in the country.) It also bears a disproportionate amount of crime and social disorder associated with the occupying troops. (Rape is particularly common.)

What many people don't know about Okinawa is that until the 1970s it was actually technically an independent state (despite being a vassal of Japan). Indeed, for most Okinawans, the American occupation was just the replacement of one hated outside army by another, and many in the prefecture were hoping that the US government could be persuaded to give the islands back the independence that was taken from them during the early 20th century. But the world of the 1970s was markedly different to that of 1945; the US and Japan were no longer enemies but allies in the Cold War, and so Okinawa was 'returned' (actually given over) to Tokyo when occupation was deemed no longer necessary.

You can still see relics of Okinawa's past if you go to the islands. Each island had its own language and king, and distinctive-looking palaces, castles and temples are dotted around the archipelago. You can also see more recent relics of Okinawa's painful history in the form of cave systems where local civilians used to hide from the fighting during the Battle for Okinawa in March-June 1945. It is estimated that 140,000 civilians were killed in the battle (along with around 60,000 Japanese and 12,000 American troops), many of them
at the hands of Japanese soldiers (who also forced thousands of them to commit suicide). They used to take shelter in remote caves under cliffs and in other inaccessible positions, and these days those places are treated as shrines to the war dead.

4 comments:

Amanda said...

Interesting....

I didn't realise that you were living in Okinawa!

zero_zero_one said...

Are you back living in Chigasaki? You'll have to drop me an email some time, apart from the odd tidbit of news here and there in your posts I have no idea what you're doing.

noisms said...

Amanda: I'm not actually in Okinawa - I'm in Kanagawa. Most of the US military presence is concentrated in those two prefectures. (Kanagawa is next to Tokyo, which is why the Americans had an interest in setting up bases there.)

Bilbo said...

I guess I had vaguely known that Okinawa was once independent, but this post provides a very interesting historical perspective. Most of my historical knowledge and interest is on the European side, and it's always good to get some other views and data points. Great post - thanks!