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Okinawa marks 50 years since reversion from U.S. rule as bases remain

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during the ceremony for the 50th Anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japan. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

NAHA, Japan (Kyodo) -- The southern island prefecture of Okinawa on Sunday marked 50 years since its reversion to Japan from U.S. rule as residents' frustrations continue over a weak local economy and the ongoing presence of U.S. military bases despite decades of protest.

At a commemoration ceremony held near a major U.S. military base on the island, Gov. Denny Tamaki urged the central government to undertake "sincere efforts" to make Okinawa "an island of peace," saying that mutual goal made at the time of reversion remains unfulfilled.

"Even after 50 years...the people of Okinawa continue to be forced to shoulder excessive base-hosting burdens," Tamaki said in his speech, citing accidents and crimes involving U.S. troops as some glaring examples.

"We hope the government will make sincere efforts to create a peaceful and prosperous Okinawa where every resident can feel happy in the true sense." Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in his remarks at the event, acknowledged the continuing "large base-hosting burden" on Okinawa, and pledged to "steadily make visible progress on the alleviation of the burden while maintaining the deterrence offered by the Japan-U.S. alliance."

On Okinawa's economic fragility, with its per capita income remaining the lowest in Japan, Kishida said the government will work to "unlock Okinawa's potential to the maximum" and realize "a strong Okinawan economy."

The ceremony was held at a convention center near U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, whose proximity to a densely populated area has made it a symbol of the burden long borne by Okinawans.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel attended the event from Tokyo via video link. Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako took part remotely.

Okinawa was returned to Japan on May 15, 1972, 20 years after the country restored its sovereignty following its defeat in World War II. During the U.S. administration granted under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, acres of land were expropriated and turned into military bases.

Even half a century after its reversion, Okinawa continues to host the bulk of U.S. bases in the country, despite its stated hope of becoming "a peaceful island free of military bases" upon its return to Japanese rule.

Earlier Sunday, Kishida surveyed the Futenma base from the nearby city hall in Ginowan and then, during a visit to Marines' Camp Foster just to the north, unveiled plans to start using some of the base jointly with the United States before the plot's scheduled return to Japanese control.

A rally was also held in the prefectural capital of Naha in the morning with participants calling for all military bases to be removed from Okinawa. "We continue to face crimes and accidents (by service members) as a result of there being U.S. bases," Kunio Uehara, one of the organizers, told about 1,000 attendees.

"We have to grant the wish Okinawa people made 50 years ago to become a peaceful and prosperous island, and keep raising our voices," he added.

The prefecture hosts 70.3 percent of U.S. military installations in Japan by acreage, up from 58.8 percent in 1972. The bilateral security treaty allows the United States to keep bases on Japanese soil.

With Okinawa being the site of the biggest ground battle on Japanese soil during World War II that cost an estimated 200,000 lives, half of them civilians, antipathy toward U.S. bases remains strong.

Such a feeling has been exacerbated by constant noise from military aircraft and drills. Plane crashes and environmental pollution on top of rapes and murders committed by U.S. service members have also added to the discontent.

According to a Kyodo News survey conducted among 1,500 residents aged 18 and older across Okinawa from March to April, 55 percent said they have been dissatisfied with the course of history after Okinawa's return to Japan, while 94 percent welcomed the reversion itself.

Repeated calls to alleviate the burden of hosting the bases have largely been ignored by the central government, which has emphasized the strategic importance of Okinawa due to its proximity to potential flashpoints such as Taiwan, in the face of an expanding Chinese military presence.

The central government also claims that the presence of U.S. forces on the island serves an important role for the security of Japan as they enhance the deterrence offered under the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Competing desires between the Japanese government and the Okinawa people have led to the stalled relocation of the Futenma base. While the central government is determined to build a replacement facility in a less populated coastal area of Okinawa, many Okinawans demand the base be relocated outside of the island prefecture.

The Futenma relocation plan dates back to a 1996 Japan-U.S. deal on the return of the land used for the Marine airfield, which was struck amid public outrage over the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen.

While the island has enjoyed some degree of economic growth over the past 50 years, it still lags behind the rest of Japan economically. Many blame it partly on Okinawa being left under U.S. rule for years while the rest of the country enjoyed decades of high postwar growth during the "economic miracle" period.

Okinawa has continually ranked the lowest among the country's 47 prefectures in average income per capita due to lack of strong industries aside from tourism in some parts of the prefecture, leading to a wide income gap among residents.

Single mothers and child poverty are also common on the island which has a higher unemployment rate than most parts of the country.

While some residents seek highly-paid jobs on U.S. bases as civilian workers, Gov. Tamaki dismisses the view that Okinawa is dependent on the bases economically, saying base-related jobs generate only 5 percent of residents' total income, an improvement from around 15 percent at the time of the reversion.

Making use of the land currently dedicated to U.S. bases but slated for return to the prefecture, the governor says it can create an economic impact of 900 billion yen ($6.9 billion), more than triple the current U.S. base-related income in the prefecture, as well as 80,000 jobs, about nine times the number of Japanese workers on the bases.

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