A peace march calling for the burden on Okinawa from hosting U.S. forces to be reduced was held Saturday in the southern island prefecture, a day before the 50th anniversary of its reversion to Japan.
For the first time since taking office in October last year, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Okinawa to mark the anniversary.
The prefecture that is geographically closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo is home to 70 percent of the total acreage exclusively used by U.S. military installations in Japan, despite accounting for only 0.6 percent of the country's total land area.
The 9-kilometer march, the first of its kind in three years due to the coronavirus pandemic, started near U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the middle of a residential area in Ginowan.
Under rainy skies, many participants were seen wearing headbands with the message "Okinawa without bases," a dream shared by residents on the island when it was returned to Japan after 27 years of U.S. rule.
They chanted "Remove the Futenma base" and "Stop noise pollution" as they walked down the streets guarded by police.
"It's still far from ideal," said Manabu Oshiro from Itoman in the prefecture, who has participated in a peace march about 30 times. "By raising my voice (against the burden) in the milestone year, I want to make the current situation in Okinawa known."
"The situation surrounding bases has not changed at all from 50 years ago," said Junko Iraha, a 61-year-old resident in Naha who also joined the march. "We should not forget that crimes and accidents involving the U.S. military are still happening."
Keisuke Yokota, a 30-year-old resident of Yokosuka said he was marching out of sympathy for people in Okinawa as his city near Tokyo hosts a U.S. Navy base. "I know it's a complicated issue, but I hope Okinawa will become free of bases one day," he said.
Following a 1996 Japan-U.S. agreement on returning the land occupied by the airfield, known as the world's most dangerous because of its location, the two countries have been trying to move the base to the less populated coastal area of Henoko in Nago.
The relocation plan has met with fierce opposition from people in Okinawa, with many demanding that the Futenma base be moved out of the prefecture.
Okinawa remained under U.S. control until 1972, after Japan regained sovereignty in 1952 following the country's defeat in World War II.
About 1,000 people took part in the march to an area near the U.S. Kadena Air Base, held at a smaller-than-usual scale to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since 1978, such events have been held around May 15 to mark the day of Okinawa's return to Japan, but peace marches were canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the spread of the virus.
This year, the march's course was shortened and was held just on Saturday instead of the usual three days, according to Okinawa Heiwa Undou Center, a civic group that organizes the event. The participants were also limited to members of its affiliated organizations.
Speaking to the participants gathered in a park near the Kadena base after the march, Hiroji Yamashiro, a senior official of the civic group, emphasized the importance of raising voices.
"We will not be involved in any kind of war. We will oppose any kind of war," he said.
"Let's join forces so Okinawa won't be a battlefield again."
On Sunday, official ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary will be held simultaneously in Okinawa and Tokyo, which will be attended online by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako.
After arriving in Okinawa for a two-day visit, Kishida offered flowers at the national cemetery for the war dead within the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, the site of a bloody ground battle in the final stage of World War II.