world

Inside the 70-year fight for Okinawa

By Emiko Jozuka

Published June 18, 2018

Akiko Urasaki has spent her life in the shadow of US military bases in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. She doesn’t mind. US culture is part of her identity.

Emiko Jozuka/CNN

But to many older residents, who lived through the 1945 Battle of Okinawa in World War II, such a favorable view of the American military presence is unimaginable. Thousands of US troops remain on the island even though control returned to Japan in 1972.

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To that part of Okinawa's older populace, including people such as Yoshiko Shimabukuro, the US bases are associated with anger generated by rapes, protests and military accidents. They fear younger generations will forget the hardships endured during the war and its aftermath.

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The base presence is a thorn in Japan’s relations with the US. On May 14, to mark the 45th anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japan, protesters gathered at the relocation site of the controversial US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

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The protesters want to stop the new facility from being built. They say it will damage the environment and would rather the base close completely.

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The US asserts its bases in Okinawa help defend Japan and maintain peace in the Asia-Pacific.

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Close to Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and the contested areas in the East and South China Seas, Okinawa-based troops and weapons can be anywhere in the region in a matter of days, if not hours.

Sgt. Maj. Michael Cato/US Marines

With tensions simmering with Beijing and North Korea, Japan's hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains eager to maintain the US-Japan alliance as an insurance policy against China's rising military might.

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But despite the island's importance to US military strategy, the US troops stationed on Okinawa have had a poor track record when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the people who live there.

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US military personnel and civilian contractors working for American forces have been accused of multiple crimes on the island, including, in recent years, rape and other violent offenses.

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On a daily basis, though, the US military presence blends into the Okinawan landscape. Many say they forget the Americans are even there, or say that the US presence is useful for such goals as learning English.

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Some Okinawans want to focus on the region’s other problems. The prefecture is Japan's poorest. Incomes are below the national standard. Low education, high child poverty and teenage pregnancy rates blight its progress.

Emiko Jozuka/CNN