"Okinawans are being discriminated against, that is the fundamental problem."
- Professor Tetsumi Takara, Ryukyu University
The Japanese island of Okinawa is the reluctant host of dozens of US military bases - and a row over moving an airfield has sparked an angry stand-off...
The bases occupy almost a fifth of the island. They constitute 74% of all US bases in Japan, on less than 1% of its landmass.
Okinawans have been saying for decades that this is not fair. And in April 90,000 residents gathered to protest, in the biggest show of opposition for 15 years.
"Okinawans understand there are national security needs, but they do not understand why Okinawa has to have such a large proportion of the US bases," says Naoya Iju of the prefectural government's Military Base Affairs Division.
"Many people think: 'We are all Japanese so why do just Okinawans have to bear this burden?"
Okinawa was forcibly incorporated into Japan in the late 19th Century. Sho Tai, the last Ryukyu king and master of Shuri Castle, died in Tokyo in 1901. A process of Japanisation began.
After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, Tokyo ceded Okinawa to temporary US control.
The US seized land for bases which now serve as the foundation for the US-Japan security alliance...
Protest over the issue has gone in waves. One came in 1972, when Okinawans found that reversion from US to Japan rule did not result in base closures.
Another came in 1995 after the gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US troops.
The latest wave was triggered by Yukio Hatoyama, elected prime minister in June 2009, who suggested Futenma airbase could be moved off Okinawa altogether, instead of to the north of the island as previously agreed.
"Until then no politician had suggested moving the base out of Okinawa," said Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, the northern city proposed as the relocation site. "The fact that the DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] said it could gave people hope."
Amid this wave of hope, Okinawans elected four anti-base MPs to the national parliament. That same wave, in January, helped Mr Inamine fight the Nago mayoral election on an anti-base platform and win.
The huge April rally was held. The Okinawan prefectural assembly unanimously backed a letter demanding the removal of the base off the island. Seventeen thousand people formed a human chain around Futenma.
But - after intense US pressure - Mr Hatoyama back-tracked. In May he said he had been unable to find an alternative site for the base. His "heart-breaking conclusion" therefore, was that the relocation should go ahead as planned. Then he stepped down.
Okinawans were furious. Local media described it as a betrayal. Why, people asked, was it more acceptable to put bases in Okinawa than anywhere else in the country?
Since then, the anger has not gone away. Cars and buses sport signs calling for a "peaceful" Okinawa. So do some buildings. Local media remain militant.
Professor Tetsumi Takara, Dean of the Graduate School of Law at Ryukyu University, says the issue is much bigger than just the relocation plan.
Okinawans feel that their voices have been ignored by the Japanese government for decades, he says.
Since becoming part of Japan they have had no control over their fate - during World War II, when Okinawa was the site of Japan's only land battle, in the 1960s when US nuclear weapons were located in Okinawa, in 1972 when US rule ended but the bases stayed.
The rights of Okinawans, he says, have been consistently subordinated to Japanese security concerns. "Okinawans are being discriminated against. That is the fundamental problem," he says.
He says this point is not adequately understood on the mainland.
"When we protested in April, they thought we were protesting about the US military but that wasn't it," he said. "It was more about the questionable treatment we are getting from the Japanese government."
Naoya Iju, of the prefectural government, says that many people think that Okinawans are being treated as second-class citizens.
Mr Hatoyama's flip-flop even appears to have engaged young people, who have only ever known Okinawa with the bases.
"My mother worked on a base and I learned English because of the bases," said one young civil servant. "But now more and more people are starting to think that there is something wrong here."
The relocation plan that sparked the wave of protest is currently stalled pending the Okinawa governor's election in November.
It is the governor who can grant or deny permission for the plan to go ahead - and the staunchly anti-base mayor of Ginowan, Yoichi Iha, is challenging an incumbent whose view on the relocation plan remains ambiguous...
Okinawans, says Prof Takara, do not protest on the streets every day. But they watch and they wait and many, he says, are looking to the election as a chance to make their feelings felt.
OKINAWA TIMELINE. Read the entire article here.
1429: King Sho Hashi establishes Ryukyu kingdom, with seat at Shuri Castle
1609: Satsuma clan from southern Japan invade, establish tributary ties
1872: Japan makes Ryukyu kingdom a feudal domain; forcibly absorbs it in 1879
Apr - June 1945: An estimated 100,000 Okinawan civilians die in Battle of Okinawa
Aug 1945: Japan surrenders; US takes control of Okinawa
1972: Okinawa reverts to Japan; US bases stay
Friday, October 8, 2010
BBC: "Anger simmers over Okinawa base burden"
Comprehensive overview on U.S. military bases in Okinawa by Philippa Fogarty at BBC News in "Anger simmers over Okinawa base burden" posted Oct. 3, 2010: