Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Okinawa

The Okinawa group of some fifty islands lies at the midpoint of the Ryukyu Islands. Okinawa, the largest of the group, is approximately 60 miles long from north to south and 2–18 miles in width. It covers 485 square miles. Okinawa is located about 375 miles southwest of the Japanese home island of Kyushu and 500 miles northeast of Taiwan (Formosa). Present-day Okinawa Prefecture consists of three major island groups.

The former Ryukyuan kingdom had a complex and changing relationship with China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. As of the late eighteenth century, the islands had their own king and paid tribute to China. The islands were taken by Japan in 1879. In 1945, Okinawa had a population of about a half million people.

Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater of World War II. During February–April 1945, the United States took Okinawa to use as a staging area for a projected invasion of the Japanese home islands. Although the U.S. State Department initially insisted on returning Okinawa to a demilitarized Japan, U.S. President Harry S. Truman approved the construction of permanent U.S. military bases there. Thus, Japan's military defeat, rather than local consultation with Okinawa, led to the maintenance of several dozen military bases on Okinawa during the Cold War.

Okinawa's postwar occupation was administered separately from the rest of Japan, and Article 3 of the Japanese-U.S. Treaty of Peace signed on 8 September 1951 kept Okinawa under U.S. control. That agreement was reinforced by the United States–Japan Security Treaty, signed the same day. Land seizures for military base expansion continued as late as 1954.

During the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and beyond, Okinawa served as a training ground for the U.S. Marine Corps, a base for surveillance overflights of communist countries in East Asia, and as a launching pad for aerial combat missions.

Discussions about the return of Okinawa to Japan continued through several U.S. and Japanese administrations, culminating with an agreement reached by President Richard Nixon with the government of Japanese Prime Minister Satō Eisaku in 1972. Nonmilitary administrative control of Okinawa Prefecture reverted to Japan. However, the reversion agreement extended the 1960 U.S.-Japan security agreement on Okinawa, and the United States retained control over base lands and related air corridors and sea-lanes.

Before and after the 1972 reversion, Okinawan social movements periodically raised a series of political demands that revolved around four issues: access to locally owned land, modifications to the Status of Forces Agreement to facilitate prosecution of U.S. military personnel suspected of crimes, protection of endangered species from base construction or live-fire exercises, and base closures. During the postreversion period, the U.S. military footprint remained larger in Okinawa than in any other prefecture of Japan. A majority of Japan-based U.S. military personnel were stationed there, and the area of land bases was the largest in Japan. In perhaps an internationally unique situation, almost 30,000 Okinawans held land titles to real estate under U.S. bases by the end of the Cold War.

Frustrations over lack of progress in resolving these issues led to an islandwide protest in 1956. During the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, the governor of Okinawa set a precedent by requesting—and getting—meetings with U.S. Defense Department and State Department officials to discuss problems with U.S. military personnel. By the time the Cold War ended, Okinawa base issues had entered mainstream Japanese politics.

Vincent Kelly Pollard


Further Reading
Pollard, Vincent Kelly. "Demilitarizing Okinawa: Globalization and Comparative Social Movements." Pp. 180–200 in Transforming East Asian Domestic and International Politics: The Impact of Economy and Globalization, edited by Robert W. Compton Jr. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002.
 

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