What awaits Okinawa 40 years after reversion? | The Japan Times Online SUNDAY TIMEOUT What awaits Okinawa 40 years after reversion? Looking back at Okinawa's troubled past â€” and forward to its uncertain future By JON MITCHELL Special to The Japan Times On May 15, 1972, Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan once again. Up until then, for 27 years since World War II â€” when the islands endured some of the most intense fighting of the entire brutal conflict â€” Okinawa had been under U.S. military administration, so reversion to Japanese rule should have heralded more peaceful and prosperous times. Landmarks: Straight-talking former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota (left), and a memorial to the 1972 reversion on Cape Hedo, the northernmost point of Okinawa. JON MITCHELL But today Okinawa is hurting. The rate of unemployment is the highest in the nation, and when people can find a job, their salaries are the lowest. Meanwhile, fewer students in Okinawa finish high school than in any other prefecture in the country, and fewer go to university. That's before even starting to consider the 32 American military bases that together monopolize almost 20 percent of Okinawa's main island, forcing people into cramped residential strips, hobbling infrastructural improvements and making outside businesses reluctant to invest in the islands' economy owing to uncertainty over the bases' future. Without a doubt, the 40 years since reversion have not been kind to Okinawa â€” but how about the next four decades? Will the islands' fortunes improve by 2052? Before looking forward, first it's necessary to learn from the past â€” starting 500 years back in more settled times â€” to see how Okinawa has ended up in its current mess. During the 16th century, Okinawa was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, whose leaders parlayed its strategic location in the South China Sea by funneling Chinese investments into trading textiles, sulfur and spices throughout the region. This commerce brought Okinawa a measure of wealth â€” but it also caught the avaricious eye of a Kyushu-based samurai clan by the name of Satsuma. In 1609, this clan dispatched a party of warriors to Okinawa to muscle a cut of the kingdom's profits. At the time, the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate was too occupied consolidating its newly won power to intervene and follow the Satsuma lead, while in the 1630s a series of laws were passed to ban both outward and inbound international trade or travel. That left the Satsuma with a convenient well-established backdoor in Okinawa through which they could profit from trade with the Asian mainland. For centuries after that, Japan maintained the islands in a geopolitical gray zone â€” neither as a formal part of Japan nor an entirely independent nation. In the late 19th century, though, the United States and European nations began stripping swaths of Asia of natural resources and subduing any resistance they encountered with guns and opium. So to prevent Okinawa falling under foreign control, in 1879 â€” 11 years after the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor Meiji â€” Japan declared Okinawa a fully fledged prefecture. Thereafter, Tokyo set about bringing the islands into the homogeneous embrace of the homeland. To do so, over the next decades it suppressed Okinawa's culture, degraded its native languages as mere dialects of Japanese and disproportionately taxed the population â€” contributing to a famine in the 1920s that killed thousands and forced still more to seek survival as far afield as Hawaii, Peru and Brazil. Japanese disdain for Okinawa reached a climax in the final months of World War II, when the Imperial Army sacrificed it as a suteishi â€” a throwaway pawn â€” to bog down the Allies and make them think twice about invading the main islands. During the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, more than a quarter of the civilian population died â€” including many in military-enforced mass suicides, and those shot by Japanese soldiers as suspected spies for speaking Okinawan languages. Then in July 1945, the U.S. military declared Okinawa under its control â€” and since then it has never left. The Allied occupation of mainland Japan ended with the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952. But thanks to a secret 1947 memo sent to Washington by Emperor Hirohito inviting the U.S. to keep control of Okinawa as a bulwark against international communism, America retained the islands. Keen to have secure bases within bombing range of communist countries in Asia â€” primarily, of course, China â€” the U.S. rapidly set about seizing civilian land and transforming Okinawa into one of the most militarized places on the planet â€” what it termed the "Keystone of the Pacific." While the 1952 deal allowed Tokyo to focus its economic exertions on rebuilding its industrial strength on the mainland, for the next 20 years Okinawa languished under U.S. administration as a Third World economy. "The 1972 reversion was supposed to bring economic parity to Okinawa," says Masahide Ota, the grand old man of Okinawan politics and the islands' governor between 1990 and 1998. "In the 1960s, we campaigned to return to Japan because at the time neither the Japanese nor the American constitutions were applicable to Okinawa. But even after 1972, the Constitution was thwarted and the mainland continues to discriminate against us." If anybody is qualified to discuss Japan's unfair treatment of Okinawa, it is 86-year-old Ota. In 1945 at the age of 19, he was conscripted into the Imperial Army's Blood and Iron Student Corps and witnessed firsthand the barbarism of the Battle of Okinawa. Then during his governorship, his anti-bases stance raised hackles on the mainland, culminating, as many people believe, in a Tokyo-orchestrated carrot-and-stick campaign that railroaded him out of office by tempting the electorate with multi-billion-yen sweeteners and a court case in which Ota was sued by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. for dereliction of his professional duty. Like many Okinawan people, Ota regards the 1972 reversion as another betrayal to add to the sellouts of 1609, 1879, 1945 and 1952. But despite this long and bitter list, he is remarkably optimistic about Okinawa's future â€” particularly in regards to the military bases. Not only is he confident that the islands can survive without them, but he believes Okinawa will prosper after they have gone. "Back in the 1960s, the income from U.S. bases amounted to 52 percent of the whole income that Okinawa gained. By reversion, that had decreased to 15 percent. Today it amounts to less than 5 percent, but our research has found that if the military bases were returned to civilian use, we could guarantee 10 times the current employment. For instance, when Omoromachi (in Naha) was under military control, civilian employment was less than 300. In 2002, that area was handed back to Okinawa, and today there are more than 30,000 people employed there." In April 2012, Tokyo announced the phased return of five U.S. installations, but at the heart of any discussion on Okinawa's future is Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma at Ginowan on the outskirts of Naha â€” a festering 480-hectare thorn in Okinawa-U.S.-Japan relations. To date, Okinawan politicians and business leaders have floated a potpourri of projects suggesting how to use the land if and when it is ever returned. These range from the construction of a brand-new town, building a Macao-esque casino resort or restoring its 2-km-long runways to farmland. However, Ota raises a concern that is all too often overlooked by those making plans for the postbase future. "Even if MCAS Futenma is returned tomorrow, it may be decades before it can be put to civilian use due to contamination of the land. Take for example Onna Communication Site; the U.S. military gave it back almost 20 years ago but we still can't use it because that ground is contaminated with seven different toxic chemicals." As for removal of the other U.S. military facilities on Okinawa, there is little impetus to encourage the U.S. to vacate them. Japanese taxpayers contribute Â¥190 billion a year for the upkeep of their runways, mess halls and golf courses, making it cheaper for the Pentagon to keep its troops on the islands than bring them home. But even a U.S. exit tomorrow couldn't turn back the clock on the almost 70 years during which the U.S. military has used the bases to store (and sometimes dump) a witches' brew of poisonous materials â€” from Nike nuclear missiles and mustard gas in the 1960s, to depleted-uranium munitions in the '90s and, currently, irradiated equipment from its relief operations near Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Recent revelations from the pages of The Japan Times have added Agent Orange â€” the Vietnam War defoliant containing large volumes of extremely toxic dioxin â€” to this list of pollutants on the U.S. bases. The accounts published here of more than 30 seriously-ill American veterans of shipping, storing and spraying the herbicide on the island have embarrassed U.S. officials who continue to consistently deny Agent Orange was ever present on Okinawa. At the same time, the campaign to win justice for sick former service members and Okinawan civilians has created a never-seen-before solidarity of environmental activists, veterans-rights campaigners, politicians â€” both in the U.S. and Japan â€” and lawyers. In the past, no matter what form of contamination, and despite protests from the prefecture and local residents, the U.S. government has repeatedly refused to foot the bill for the massive clean-up costs of former bases. Quite how it will approach the issue of Agent Orange contamination remains to be seen. For Ota, this environmental threat far outweighs the danger most usually cited to justify the continued American military presence â€” China.