By MARI YAMAGUCHI – Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — Okinawa marked the 77th anniversary of the end of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II on Thursday, with the governor calling for a further reduction in the U.S. military presence there amid local fears grow that Japan’s southern islands will become embroiled in regional military tensions.
The Battle of Okinawa killed an estimated 200,000 people, nearly half of whom were Okinawan residents. The wartime Japanese military, in an attempt to delay an American landing on the main islands, essentially sacrificed the local population.
Many in Okinawa worry about the growing deployment of Japanese missile defense and amphibious capabilities on outlying islands near geopolitical hotspots like Taiwan.
In a ceremony marking the end of the battle on June 23, 1945, about 300 attendees in Okinawa, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other officials, offered a minute’s silence at noon and placed chrysanthemums for the dead of the war. The number of attendants has been reduced due to coronavirus concerns.
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At the ceremony in the town of Itoman on the main island of Okinawa, Governor Denny Tamaki spoke about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying the destruction of towns, buildings and culture community, as well as the constant fear of Ukrainians, “reminds us of our memory of the ground battle over Okinawa that bewildered the citizens 77 years ago.”
“We are hit with an indescribable shock,” he said.
Tamaki also pledged to continue his efforts to abolish nuclear weapons and renounce war “so as never to let Okinawa become a battlefield”.
In May, Okinawa celebrated the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan in 1972, two decades after the end of American occupation of most of the country.
Today, the majority of the 50,000 American soldiers based in Japan under a bilateral security pact and 70% of American military installations are still in Okinawa, which is only 0.6% of Japanese territory.
Due to US bases, Okinawa faces noise, pollution, accidents and crime from US troops, Tamaki said.
Kishida acknowledged the need for more government efforts to reduce Okinawa’s burden of US military bases as well as greater support for the islands’ economic development, which has lagged during their 27-year US occupation.
Resentment and frustration run deep in Okinawa over the heavy US presence and Tokyo’s lack of effort to negotiate with Washington to balance the security burden between mainland Japan and the southern island group.
Kishida, citing deteriorating security environment in regional seas amid threats from China, North Korea and Russia, pledged to boost Japan’s military capacity and budget in coming years , including enemy attack capabilities that critics say interfere with Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
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