Okinawa and the Continuing US Military Presence
Okinawa was originally an independent kingdom called Ryukyu. A very small island state, it bloomed because of its ideal location for trading, and its patronage of, and support from, Imperial China. It was absorbed into Japan by the late 19th century, even though its populace is culturally distinct from that of the rest of the country.
Sitting about 640 kilometres south of Japan’s Kyushu Island, Okinawa’s main appeal for travellers is that it’s two dozen islands are ringed with crystal-blue tropical waters and white sand beaches.
It was the site of a fierce 82-day battle in 1945, before falling to overwhelming US forces on June 22, 1945. The battle was the most brutal of the Pacific War. More than 12,000 Americans were killed and a further 50,000 were wounded. More than 150,000 Japanese – many of them civilians – were also killed in the fighting.
During the battle, the Japanese imperial army compelled local civilians to resist the American assault and even commit mass suicide. Around 150,000 Okinawans perished. The Americans, who after the war occupied all of Okinawa for two decades longer than the rest of Japan, were originally welcomed as an improvement over the Japanese army.
The majority of the island has reverted to Japanese control but local opposition to the continuing U.S. presence has grown. Okinawa hosts nearly 74% of facilities exclusively used by the U.S. military in Japan. Due to the presence of U.S. bases, rapes of women and girls as well as accidents have repeatedly occurred over many years. The island of Okinawa is long and narrow and the Kadena Air base sits right in the centre. Attempts to build a new base along the coast are being doggedly resisted, and Okinawans rightly feel that the central government in Tokyo ignores their wishes. Despite tourism, Okinawa is the poorest of Japan’s prefectures.
It rains a lot and the island is hit by frequent typhoons, so much so that most of the buildings are now made of concrete. The main city Naha – completely destroyed in the fighting – is extraordinarily tacky: food and souvenirs for tourists sold in dayglow coloured shops (see photos).
Most of the remains of the fighting are in the hilly south of the island. Shuri, the king’s palace destroyed in 1945, has been rebuilt. Nearby deep underground, the site of the Imperial Navy headquarters can be visited. The Himeyuri cave where schoolgirls drafted in as nurses during the battle died makes a poignant visit.
To the north of the island, past Kadena Air Base, the huge Churaumi Aquarium contains a wide variety of species, the most striking of which are the giant whale sharks and manta rays.
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