Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reversion Day on Okinawa: 40 Years Later

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the United States returning Okinawa to the control of the Japanese government - an event commonly referred to on the island as "Reversion Day."  I happened to have been living on Okinawa when the original event took place, and now, forty years later, it is amazing to see what has changed and what has not.

There is evidence of human habitation on Okinawa as long as 4,000 years ago.   China had an early interest in the island and basically took over governance in 605 A.D.  The next 1,200 years witnessed the development of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, with control of the island shifting between various local warring families and with shifting amounts of Chinese and Japanese influence.  The Kingdom of the Ryukyus was abolished by the Meiji dynasty in 1872 and Okinawa became an official prefecture of Japan - or a Japanese state.

The United States invaded Okinawa in April of 1945 in what would become the largest sea battle in history, and after weeks of fighting, the Japanese suffered defeat in the battle and the loss of the island.  Over one-quarter of the island's native population died in the Battle of Okinawa, and many of the survivors were reduced to eating dirt and grass.

On May 15, 1972, Okinawa was officially returned to Japan at the direction of President Nixon - exactly one century after Japan abolished local governance on the island.

Forty years ago the dollar was the accepted local currency, car steering wheels were on the driver's left, and people drove on the right-hand side of the road.  Today we use Japanese yen to make purchases on the local economy.  (It was 300 yen to the dollar then, it is 78 yen to the dollar today.)  Car steering wheels are on the driver's right, and people drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Forty years ago some Okinawans were angry about one occupying power handing their island off to another occupying power, and many small groups would gather in front of the United States military bases to protest reversion.  Not surprisingly, some are still angry about being handed off to the government of Japan.  I witnessed one fairly large reversion protest march on Saturday, and we have been told to expect to encounter more.  Okinawans are a very peaceful and polite people, so these demonstrations consist mainly of carrying signs and chanting.

So things have changed in some respects but not in others.  Today Naha, the capital of the Prefecture of Okinawa, is a sprawling metropolis and commercial center.  It boasts an international airport, a deep-water harbor that serves vessels from much of Asia, and even a monorail system (built to impress Bill and Hillary Clinton when they visited here for a G-8 conference during the 1990's)..  Most of the southern half of the island, in fact, is strongly invested in commercialism.   The U.S. military presence pumps millions of dollars into the local economy and serves as a major employer of local nationals.  Many Okinawans seem to be doing quite well in dealing with the governments of Japan and the United States, but some still wish for simpler times when they had more control over their own destiny as a people.

I probably won't be returning to Okinawa after I leave this July, but I have had two eventful tours here and I have grown to truly like and respect the Okinawan people.  I wish them a future that strengthens their pride and treats them with the dignity and respect they deserve.  

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