TOKYO/NAHA, Okinawa -- Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa's return to Japan by the U.S.
Japan's southernmost prefecture, comprised of 160 islands, formed the backdrop of some of the fiercest battles fought in Japan during World War II. A quarter of the local population, some 120,000 people, died.
Five decades later, Okinawans still can't shake the specter of war. In the intervening, mostly peaceful, years, Okinawans have petitioned the government to cut the size of the American military footprint on the main island. Tokyo, under different prime ministers, had swayed toward that goal.
But now, the rise of China has once again turned Okinawa into the first line of defense. The islands are nothing short of irreplaceable in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.
On May 3, during Japan's Golden Week holiday, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning began operations in the Pacific Ocean, 160 km south of Okinawa.
In drills that have gone on for 10 consecutive days, warplanes have taken off from the Liaoning's large deck more than 200 times. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force dispatched its own de facto aircraft carrier, JS Izumo, to monitor the Chinese and the Air Self-Defense Force repeatedly scrambled jet fighters near the area.
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sails through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa on its way to the Pacific in this handout photo taken by Japan Self-Defense Forces and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan on April 4. © Reuters
The islands of Okinawa are at the front line of the faceoff between Japan's Self-Defense Forces and China's People's Liberation Army. From Okinawa, the distances to mainland China, the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula are merely 600 km to 1,000 km. That proximity is what makes it such an attractive base for the U.S. Marines, who can arrive at those areas quickly should conflict arise.
Okinawa offers the U.S. a vantage point few other locations can match from which to watch over the vast Indo-Pacific region.
When Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, U.S. military bases were as concentrated in Okinawa as they are today. But the geopolitical landscape was vastly different.
Just ahead of the Okinawa return, the U.S. and China had begun the process of normalizing diplomatic relations. After the return of the islands, Kakuei Tanaka, who had pledged to normalize relations with China, became Japan's prime minister. Under his administration, diplomatic relations were switched away from Taipei.
During the Cold War, the top national security threat came from the Soviet Union. The SDF's focus was on the island of Hokkaido to fend off the landing of an invading force from the north.
In 1972, China's gross domestic product was roughly $113 billion; a third of Japan's. While China did become a nuclear state in the 1960s, it was not in a position to build up its military in a big way.
Much has changed in the half-century since. The SDF is shifting its focus away from Hokkaido and toward its southwest.
In a potential Taiwan crisis, the island of Yonaguni, just 110 km away, could become embroiled in the conflict. Japan's need to bolster island defense is not some distant goal but a matter of urgency.
A formation of F-15C/D Eagles and an HH-60 Pavehawk taxi during a routine wing readiness exercise at Kadena Air Base, Japan on March . © U.S. Air Force
Okinawa constitutes just 0.6% of Japan's land mass. Yet roughly 70% of the U.S. military's facilities in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa alone, an increase from the roughly 60% in 1972.
Kadena Air Base on the main island of Okinawa is often referred to as the "Keystone of the Pacific" and is the largest U.S. Air Force base in East Asia. The nearby city of Uruma is home to the III Marine Expeditionary Force, the only expeditionary force to be headquartered outside the U.S. For both America's Indo-Pacific strategy and the national security of Japan, Okinawa has always been crucial.
Japan's defense presence on the islands has also expanded by 20% in the last decade. In 2016, the Ground Self-Defense Force set up a coast observation unit on Yonaguni Island. In 2019, a missile unit was established on Miyako Island. And in fiscal 2022, another missile unit will be placed on Ishigaki Island.
On May 4, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters in Washington that he and his U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin had agreed to "accelerate efforts to ease the burden on Okinawa, now 50 years after its return."
Just emphasizing the strategic importance of Okinawa will not win the hearts of the local population. In March, an activist group called "No More Okinawa War" held its inaugural rally, where it called on Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki not to turn the Nansei Islands, the island chain that stretches from the southernmost tip of Kyushu to the north of Taiwan, into a launch base for the U.S. military.
There have been continuous efforts to reduce tensions with the local population. In 1996, Japan and the U.S. jointly announced that the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Base, adjacent to a residential area and dubbed "the most dangerous base in the world," would be returned to Japan and the base relocated. That same year, Okinawa issues were brought under the auspices of the chief cabinet secretary, signaling that their importance to then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
"We can definitely reduce the burden on Okinawa while not hurting the foundation of the Japan-U.S. alliance," insisted then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajimyama, who spearheaded the government's efforts to strengthen Okinawa's economy.
Hashimoto's successor, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, also held the 2000 Group of Seven Summit in Okinawa.
U.S. Marines board an MV-22B Osprey during a contested-island exercise on Okinawa in October 2021. © U.S. Marine Corps
Two decades later, such personal commitment by Japan's leaders has faded. In his seven months in office, current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has met Gov. Tamaki just twice, for a total of 40 minutes.
In mid-February, the U.S. Marines conducted a major landing practice on Ie Island, 9 km west of Okinawa's main island. Roughly 7,500 marines took part in a drill to retake a remote island, joined by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
Strengthening deterrence is a top priority for Washington. Establishing a network of missiles across the so-called first island chain that spans Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines is a pillar of the strategy.
Okinawa is a key candidate location in which to place such missiles, but their deployment will immediately put the prefecture at the top of China's strike list in the event of war.
For 50 years, Okinawa has tried to fight off its role as a key military base. If the missile plan becomes reality, it is set to be the latest thorn in the relationship between Okinawa and the two capitals.