1945: Asia’s Powers Converge at Okinawa

Stratfor Global Intelligence, 06.09.2015

On Sept. 7, 1945, Japanese forces in the Ryukyu Islands officially surrendered to the Americans on the island of Okinawa. U.S. forces spent more than 80 days between April and June 1945 taking the island. The battle ended with 300,000 military and civilian casualties, the death of U.S. Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner as well as the suicides of two Japanese generals. Historically distinct from the rest of Japan, the island chain running southwest to Formosa (now Taiwan) was caught up in the middle of the contest between the United States and Japan for control of the Pacific Rim. It was intended to be the last step in the long slog across the Pacific for a final invasion of Japan's main islands. Today, power politics in East Asia has changed substantially. Japan and the United States now compete against a rising China, while during World War II, China and the United States were allies against imperial Japan. In spite of the changes, Okinawa and the Ryukyus are once again caught in the middle.

The U.S. invasion of Japan never took place, of course. The use of the atomic bomb obviated the need. When the United States occupied Japan and took up its Cold War role in the Pacific, Washington quickly recognized that Okinawa's geographic position was going to affect its regional strategy. Construction began quickly on Kadena and other military bases on Okinawa to establish a strategic position between Taiwan and Japan. Okinawa was ideal for another reason. Occupying the island, which is not a traditional part of Japan, did not entail the political cost that would come with taking a position on the main islands. Tokyo saw U.S. forces in Okinawa as a way to guarantee Japanese security with little social cost. For Japan, the Ryukyus were a strategic sacrifice.

Although the United States does have a large naval presence in Yokosuka on Honshu Island, 60 percent of U.S. personnel are stationed on Okinawa, which is also home to 75 percent of basing by area. Okinawans assert that this is a disproportionate burden – their island comprises less than 1 percent of Japan's total landmass. The plans to transfer the Cold War-era Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko in the north have continued to stir up controversy, even as Tokyo and Washington proceed with national-level agreements. In a few days, on Sept. 7, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with the Okinawan government to discuss the base transfer, in hopes of overcoming local resistance to the plan. But in Okinawa, the political perception is that their prefecture has no real local autonomy, despite the promises of the Japanese Constitution. Tokyo sees it differently. To the Japanese government, Okinawans are jeopardizing national security imperatives for parochial interests and are not even entirely Japanese.


Imperial Ambitions

The lingering question of who is properly Japanese reflects the history of Japan's relations with the Ryukyus and contributes to the tensions over U.S. military presence. In the 19th century, Okinawa was the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom, a collection of islands engaged in maritime trade and acting as a nominal tributary to both China and Japan. When Japan and China signed the Sino-Japanese Friendship and Trade Treaty of 1871, Japan had only just entered a period of modernization known as the Meiji Restoration. Despite its nascent push to Westernize, and despite China's ongoing struggle with Western powers, Japan was still a weaker regional power than Qing Dynasty China.

Not long after Japan and China signed the treaty, control over the Ryukyus became a point of conflict. Several fishermen from the Ryukyu Islands were shipwrecked on Formosa and killed by local tribal people. Japan demanded reparations from China for the incident, claiming the Ryukyu sailors were under Japan's protection. China disagreed, arguing that both the Ryukyu Kingdom and Formosa were Chinese vassals – the issue was an internal matter. In 1874, friction between Japan and China had grown over the incident and Japan launched its first modern overseas military deployment, landing troops in Formosa. An October 1874 Agreement between Japan and China on Formosa effectively ceded Chinese control of Okinawa to the Japanese. In 1897 Japan formally annexed all of the Ryukyus, ending even the fiction of continued independence. Much as it did after the later annexation of Korea, the Japanese government sought to make the Ryukyuans more Japanese. This triggered local protests and resistance, a movement that lingers today in pushes for Okinawa autonomy or even independence.


Okinawa Locator Map Sept 2015

The Japanese were not the only ones who tested their regional power in the Ryukyus. When U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed for Japan in 1853 on his mission to open the stubborn island nation to Western trade, his first stop was in Naha, Okinawa. Here Perry tested out his imperial attitude ahead of his more important meeting with the Japanese. Locals protested but mounted little concrete opposition, and the commodore explored Okinawa, visited the palace and marked the island as a potential port or coaling station for the U.S. Navy. (A latecomer to the Asian imperial race, Washington was left to choose from among the lesser territories.)

Perry visited Okinawa three more times – on his return trip and on both legs of his 1854 visit to Japan, when he signed the Treaty of Kanagawa. Returning from his second trip to Japan, Perry signed the Treaty of Naha, which agreed to better protection for U.S. sailors on the Ryukyus. A month later, when Commander John Rodgers led a surveying expedition and found the Okinawans unwilling to provide wood, water and food despite treaty stipulations, Rodgers made a show of force to ensure compliance. These early encounters set the tone for U.S.-Okinawan relations, and the Americans did little to counter Japan's later annexation of the Ryukyus.


Continued Resentment

In World War II, Okinawa was the final barrier between the Japanese Empire and the coup de grace of a U.S. invasion. Faced with this grim prospect, the Japanese forces stationed there mounted stiff resistance. Unlike elsewhere in the Pacific, Okinawa had a sizable civilian population that complicated the fighting. By most accounts civilian deaths, including those conscripted to labor for the Japanese forces, exceeded the total combat deaths on both sides. Japanese military officers in many places reportedly demanded that Okinawans commit suicide rather than surrender, allegations contentious in Japan today. The United States restored sovereignty to the rest of Japan in 1952, but Okinawa and the Ryukyus were not returned. It was not until 1972 that the U.S. relinquished control of Okinawa, although it retained its sizable military presence.

Today, Okinawans bitterly recall Tokyo's desperate sacrifice of Okinawa in the final days of World War II. They also remember the Japanese government sacrificing them to protect the main Japanese islands from the social stain of Cold War U.S. forces. This underlies their resistance to the U.S. military presence. Local politicians argue that the prime minister is once again trying to strengthen the alliance with the United States at the cost of Okinawa. While the U.S. plan to shift the Marine Corps Air Station from Futenma to Henoko is intended to move troops away from population centers and ease the tensions, Okinawans see the continued presence of troops itself as an affront.

The election of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga in December 2014 revived the simmering dispute. Onaga, a former member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, nonetheless campaigned on an anti-base platform. He called for an end to the relocation plans. He is building off of years of resentment fueled by cases of rape, sexual misconduct and other criminal acts by a small number of U.S. forces. The governor also plays off residents' fear that Osprey aircraft deployed to the island may crash in residential areas. The Okinawan leader even traveled to the United States in June to directly petition members of Congress to back his demands — a tour that met with little success.

Angry critics of the base have also drawn on the history and culture of Okinawa to rally local support and counter Tokyo and Washington. It is not unusual for Onaga to speak the local dialect or wear the local "Kariyushi" shirt. He has even managed to gain backing for the anti-base campaign cause from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who argued in August that the relocation would be a violation of the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is a de facto recognition of the status of the Okinawans as a unique indigenous group. Neither Tokyo nor Washington agrees with the accusation that rights are being violated by the base move, something that further infuriates activists in Okinawa.

Okinawa, however, is still vital to maintaining a U.S. regional presence. The location is strategic and the infrastructure is in place. While the United States has expanded its presence in the more distant Guam, no other location can play the same role as Okinawa in its central space between the East and South China seas, and between Japan and the Philippines. Tokyo, too, sees the significance of Okinawa both as a place for a U.S. force presence and as the primary location for any Japanese expansion of responsibility in the South China Sea. Tokyo is already considering maritime and aerial patrols of the South China Sea, given China's expansion there and the importance of those sea-lanes to Japanese economic survival. Okinawa is the staging ground for any Japanese military activities in the South China Sea. Japan has already begun discussions with the Philippines over refueling rights for flights from Okinawa over and around the disputed Spratly islands.

Given Okinawa's prime role in both the U.S. and Japanese defense architecture, and its position as the starting point for any additional Japanese military action in the South China Sea, Beijing has taken a keen interest in the anti-base movement and in the idea of Okinawan indigenous rights. Onaga visited Beijing in April, and Chinese media has been full of articles highlighting the unfair treatment of Okinawa by Japan throughout history, placing Japan's annexation of Okinawa as the starting point in a direct line that led to Japan's later invasion of China and its aggressive war throughout Asia. There are rumors that Beijing may be quietly, perhaps indirectly, providing additional support to the anti-base movement and indigenous Okinawan movements to keep tensions high and complicate U.S. and Japanese defense cooperation. Whether there is direct support, exploitation or just disconnected observation, it is clear that for Beijing, the fate of Okinawa is critical to China's own defense plans in the region. This, of course, is in keeping with the Ryukyu's enduring geopolitical importance in regional maritime issues – as well as the island chain's tenuous connection to Japan.

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