In a whitewashed bunker on the island of Okinawa, the Imperial Japanese Naval Headquarters prepared to make its last stand. A typhoon of steel raged outside in June 1945 in one of the last, blood soaked spasms of World War II. One-quarter of the civilian population died as US troops stormed the island. Inside the bunker, the troops of the Imperial army pulled the pins of their grenades rather than surrender. One corner of the tunnel is peppered with shrapnel marks.
The Japanese script on the wall still carries the defiant message: “American soldier Pigs! We will soon turn the battle around. Then we will reduce your numbers.”
Today the island chain finds itself at the epicenter of a new tug of war, a second battle of Okinawa. The military threat comes from a China intent on securing its sea lanes and pushing back the US’ naval power into the Pacific. Looking more vulnerable than it has been for decades, Japan is scrambling to redeploy troops and missiles from the north to a 1,300km chain of islands to the south, the gatekeeper to the Pacific. Seen from mainland Japan, 34 US military bases on Okinawa have gone from being a burden to a boon.
Everything changed in September when a Chinese trawler rammed a Japanese coastguard ship near the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited but disputed archipelago also claimed by Taiwan, which calls it the Diaoyutais (釣魚台). When the coast guard arrested the Chinese captain, Beijing saw red. Four executives from Fujitsu corp working in China were detained. The export of Chinese rare earths to Japan mysteriously ceased. Group tours of Chinese tourists to Japan were stopped. Even after the captain was released without charge, China demanded an apology and compensation. It was only when the US stepped in to say that the Senkaku Islands were covered by the US-Japan security treaty, that China fell silent.
For Yukio Okamoto, foreign policy adviser to former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, the lesson was clear: “The only deterrence we have with China is the United States, because what China fears most is the deterioration of its relationship with the US. What the US said was that should there be any conflict between Japan and China, they would fulfil their obligations under the treaty. That was a big political statement and now we are realizing that Japan’s security treaty system works.”
Mindful of the formidable threat from its mighty neighbor, the Japanese government has rapidly reversed a pre-election promise that it would distance itself from the US. Former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, the first Democratic Party of Japan prime minister, vowed to cosy up to China by forming an East Asian Community. He pledged he would move US airbases and marines out of Okinawa. He lasted all of nine months.
His successor, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, patched up relations with Washington, but only at the cost of rubbing more salt in the wound of Okinawa.
“People in Okinawa started to think yes, we can actually choose something else, we don’t have to bear to accept the military burden for ever,” former Ginowan City mayor Yoichi Iha said.
Iha knows exactly what that burden means. Futenma Airbase runs through the middle of his town. Since the islands reverted from US to Japanese rule in 1972, there have been 42 crashes of US aircraft, 37 cases of falling parts, 328 emergency landings, 17 landing failures. For London, it would be like having F22s landing in Hyde Park.