Earlier this week, Jinshiro Motoyama placed a banner outside the office of Japan’s prime minister, sat on a folding chair, and stopped eating. It was a dramatic gesture, but the 30-year-old activist believes desperate measures are needed to end the long US military presence in his birthplace, Okinawa.
Located roughly 1,000 miles south of Tokyo in the East China Sea, Okinawa is a speck in the ocean that comprises 0.6% of Japan’s total land area but hosts about 70% of the US’s military bases in Japan and more than half of its 47,000 troops.
As the island, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war, prepares on Sunday to mark 50 years since it was returned to Japanese sovereignty from postwar US control, Motoyama is in no mood to celebrate.
“The Japanese government wants there to be a celebratory mood, but that is not possible when you consider that the situation over US bases is still unresolved,” the 30-year-old graduate student told reporters on Friday, the fifth day of his hunger strike.
He acknowledged that Okinawa’s 1.4 million people had become more affluent – although the collection of islands is still the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures – over the past half a century, but said the island was still being treated like a quasi-colonial outpost.
“The biggest issue since reversion to Japan, and since the end of the second world war, is the presence of US military bases, which have been disproportionately built in Okinawa.”
The debate over the US military footprint is dominated by the future of Futenma, a US marine corps airbase located in the middle of a densely populated city, to an offshore location in Henoko, a fishing village in the remote northern half of the main Okinawan island.
Critics say the Henoko base will destroy the area’s delicate marine ecosystem and threaten the safety of about 2,000 residents living near the site.
Opposition to the US military presence on Okinawa surged after the 1995 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen. The following year, Japan and the US agreed to reduce the US footprint by moving Futenma’s personnel and military hardware to Henoko. But most Okinawans want the new base to be built elsewhere in Japan.
Okinawa’s anti-base governor, Denny Tamaki, has vowed to fight the Henoko move – a stance backed by more than 70% of voters in a non-binding 2019 prefecture-wide referendum that Motoyama helped organise.
In a brief meeting this week with Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, Tamaki urged him to resolve the Henoko base controversy through dialogue. “I hope the government will … fully recognise Okinawans’ views,” said Tamaki, the son of a Japanese woman and a US marine whom he has never met.
In response, the chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said the government aimed to reduce the island’s burden, but insisted that there was no alternative to building a new base in Henoko.
Motoyama, who is demanding an immediate end to base construction work and a substantial reduction in the US military presence, accused the Japanese government of ignoring the democratic will of the Okinawan people.
“It simply refused to accept the result of the referendum,” he said. “How much longer will the people of Okinawa have to bear this situation? Unless the military base problem is resolved, the reversion and the tragedy of the second world war will never truly be over for the people of Okinawa.”
On the eve of the anniversary of the end of the US occupation of Okinawa, local opposition to the US military presence remains high.
A poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and Okinawan media organisations found that 61% of local people wanted fewer US bases on the island, while 19% said they were happy with the status quo.
Supporters of a continued role for “fortress Okinawa” point to the security risks posed by a nuclear armed North Korea and a more assertive China, whose navy has recently increased its activities in waters near Okinawa, with fighter jets taking off and landing on the aircraft carrier Liaoning every day for more than a week.
Fears in Japan that China could attempt to retake Taiwan or forcibly claim the disputed Senkaku islands – located less than 124 miles (200km) away – have risen since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
MPs from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party have called for the country to acquire missiles that can strike targets in enemy territory – weapons that could be deployed on one of Okinawa’s smaller “frontline” islands.
Rising tensions in the region have made Okinawa a target, not a cornerstone of deterrence, according to Masaaki Gabe, a professor emeritus at the University of Ryukyus, who was 17 when the US occupation ended. “Okinawa will be the frontline in the case of a war or conflict between Japan and China,” Gabe said. “After 50 years, the insecure feeling still continues.”
Motoyama agreed. “I believe there is a risk that Okinawa could again become the scene of a battle,” he said referring to an invasion by US troops in April 1945 in which 94,000 civilians – about a quarter of Okinawa’s population – died, along with 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,500 US troops.
Demands by Okinawa’s residents to lighten their burden by moving some US military facilities to other parts of Japan have been ignored. The government has also refused to amend the Japan-US status of forces agreement, which critics say protects US service personnel accused of serious crimes, including rape.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said he doubted many Okinawans would be celebrating the past 50 years under Japanese sovereignty.
“They are unhappy with reversion because the US military remains entrenched,” he said. “Local people do not think of the bases as shields but rather as targets. And crime and environmental problems connected to the bases mean the Americans are continuing to outstay their welcome.”
Motoyama, who has had no contact with Japanese government officials, said he would continue his hunger strike until Sunday’s anniversary, despite criticism on social media that it was pointless.
“I want people to think about why I’m having to do this,” he said. “However loudly Okinawan people make their voices heard, no matter what they do, they are ignored by the Japanese government. Nothing has changed in 50 years.”
Reuters contributed reporting.