With the removal of missiles and the initial rundown of poison gas stockpiles, the United States withdrawal from the key Pacific military base of Okinawa is gathering momentum.
With the removal of missiles and the initial rundown of poison gas stockpiles, the United States withdrawal from the key Pacific military base of Okinawa is gathering momentum. But when Okinawa and other islands of the Ryukyu group are handed back to Japan next year, the problems that have grown up during 27 years of American occupation will not vanish overnight.
For one thing, the islands have altered under the cultural and economic influence of American occupation. But more important, there are increasing fears that Okinawa's relations with Japan may become as strained as those with the United States once Japanese forces replace the Americans on the island. Professor Mikie Higa, who teaches law at Okinawa University. voiced these fears during an interview earlier this month.
Okinawa a former Japanese province, fell to the Americans in one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two. Two-hundred thousand Japanese died there, attempting to block the feared American invasion of the mainland, and the fighting is commemorated in the memorials and shrines that dot the island.
The Americans converted Okinawa into a vast military complex. But increasing Japanese pressure for the return of the island became a major emotional issue -- inflamed first by the revelation that missiles with nuclear capability were installed on the island, then by admissions that a stockpile of chemical weapons had been built up there.
There have already been movements of missiles from the island. This week, the rundown of chemical weapons started when 150 tons of poison gas shells were shipped to the coast. Another 13,000 tons of these weapons -- mostly deadly nerve gas -- have yet to be removed.
Finally, there will be the withdrawal of conventional weapons and American personnel. And this is where the first problem starts. Along with the demonstrations against the military presence in Okinawa, there have been protests -- sometimes violent -- against the rundown of local personnel employed on the American bases.
A question-mark now hangs over the future of major oil installations built on the island by four American companies. And there's the question of compensation to the United States for investment in communications, power supplies and other public services.
More important, there's increasing opposition to the handover of the Ryukyu archipelago to Japan. In step with contemporary trends, the islands have a growing independence movement.
There are increasing demands for a United Nations-supervised referendum at which the Ryukyuans -- 80 per cent of them living in Okinawa -- would be free to express their feeling about the handover to Japan.
At present, the independence movement remains shadowy. But it is becoming increasingly vocal. In an interview, Professor Mikie Higa expressed some of the fears the islanders have about the handover to Japan: