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Closer to China than to the Japanese mainland, these idyllic islands confront the prospect of war

Stephanie Yang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Scattered across the island, population 1.5 million, are stone memorials, abandoned bunkers and walls pocked with bullet holes — remnants of bloody battles between Japanese and American forces.

The U.S. ultimately wrested control and occupied the island for nearly three decades after Japan's surrender. The U.S. returned Okinawa to Japan in 1971, but the bases remained and now account for 70% of U.S. military land use in Japan, even though the island represents just 0.6% of the country's area.

That outsize presence has perpetuated resentment among locals, who have complained of noise pollution, environmental damage and misconduct by U.S. troops. Crimes by current or former U.S. service members — such as the kidnap and rape of a 12-year-old girl in 1995 and the murder of a 20-year-old woman in 2016 — have sparked mass protests in Okinawa.

Okinawa's governor is staunchly opposed to expanding U.S. and Japanese bases on the island. Denny Tamaki said his calls to move some U.S. operations off Okinawa have been overshadowed by the national government's preoccupation with potential international conflict.

Tamaki, whose father was a U.S. Marine, has emphasized the need for Japan to maintain relations with Beijing as well as Washington.

"We understand that the security environment is becoming more and more severe," Tamaki said. "But we are concerned that the increased level of deterrence could enhance risk in the region."

 

Such worries are shared among some of his supporters — that as the military presence in Okinawa grows, it will inevitably attract the ire of enemy nations. Plans for a new Japanese base in central Okinawa have been met with local anxiety and resistance.

"With so many Japanese and U.S. military bases here, we would be hit immediately," said Rinichi Teruya, a 71-year-old innkeeper who grew up in the Okinawa town of Kadena, next to the largest U.S. Air Force base in Asia.

Teruya has fond memories of American soldiers, recalling that they would often walk with him and share their bananas and Sunkist oranges.

That did not stop him from joining demonstrations against the bases later in life. While his age prevents him from protesting now, he believes that expansion will inflame frictions between U.S. military personnel and locals over issues like excessive noise, vehicular accidents and pollution.

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