Okinawa on Friday marked the 78th anniversary of the end of a fierce World War II ground battle between Japanese and U.S. troops, with concern growing among local people that the island prefecture could become the front line of conflict amid rising tensions with China.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki called for "peaceful diplomacy and dialogue" to ease regional tensions during a commemoration service at a memorial park in Itoman, the site of the final stage of the Battle of Okinawa, which killed a quarter of the local civilian population.

"People in the prefecture are greatly concerned" with the current situation rekindling memories of the brutal land battle, Tamaki said, touching on Japanese national security strategy documents endorsed in December that highlighted the need to bolster defense capabilities in Okinawa.

A couple pray at the Cornerstone of Peace monument inscribed with the names of those who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa, at the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, on June 23, 2023. (Kyodo)

Japan has been deploying defense assets on far-flung islands in the country's southwest amid tensions over Taiwan and the nearby Senkaku Islands, a group of Tokyo-controlled uninhabited islets, which China claims and calls Diaoyu.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also attended the commemoration event and emphasized that "the security environment surrounding our country is currently at its most tense and complicated since the war."

While noting that the central government does not make light of the fact that Okinawa continues to host the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, the prime minister said he will strive to reduce the "burden" local people face from hosting the bases.

The Japanese government has been working to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the Okinawa Prefecture as a key measure for what it believes would address such a burden.

But many Okinawans have long been frustrated with noise and crimes linked to the U.S. military presence and want the Futenma base moved outside the prefecture.

During the ceremony, Tamaki reiterated the local government's demand to scrap the decades-old plan to move the Futenma base from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the island's less densely populated coastal area of Henoko in Nago.

Kishida said in his speech he will "steadily" proceed with the consolidation and reduction of facilities of U.S. military forces in Japan, without specifically referring to the ongoing work to build a replacement facility at Henoko.

Members of the public were able to participate in the memorial ceremony for the first time in four years, as the novel coronavirus was downgraded in the country to the same category as seasonal influenza earlier this year. About 4,000 people took part in the event.

Attendees observed a minute of silence at noon, followed by a poem read by a survivor's grandson.

"People with power start wars, but ordinary people are always the first to suffer," said Seiki Takushi, a survivor who came to visit the Cornerstone of Peace in the memorial park.

The 84-year-old witnessed his mother asking his grandmother to take care of the children after she was shot in a bunker during the battle, adding he cannot forget the scene.

Ryoyu Zukeyama, 80, joined around 270 relatives of the victims and others on a march to the park that also took place for the first time in four years.

"I'm afraid that the presence of the bases or the Self-Defense Forces may make us a target (of an attack) and lead to war," he said.

The anniversary follows the establishment in March of a Ground Self-Defense Force garrison on Okinawa Prefecture's Ishigaki Island, the latest in a series of camps opened on the islands in the southwest in recent years.

The fighting from March through June 1945 claimed the lives of approximately 94,000 civilians, in addition to the Japanese and U.S. troops involved.

The names of 365 people were added this year to the list of war dead inscribed on the Cornerstone of Peace, bringing the total to 242,046. The list covers all those killed in the war, irrespective of nationality or civilian or military status.

Okinawa Prefecture remained under U.S. administration until 1972. It accounts for about 70 percent of the acreage used exclusively for U.S. military facilities in Japan, despite only representing 0.6 percent of the country's total land area.