Okinawa is a city
, and prefecture
at the southern end of the Japan
. The prefecture of Okinawa consists of two main groups of islands, the Okinawa Islands
and the Sakishima Islands
, which together form the Ryukyu Islands
in a line between the islands of Kagoshima
Prefecture and the island of Taiwan
. Okinawa Island is the largest island in this group, 100 km long and 30 km across at its widest point. The city of Okinawa is located on the southern half of this island, north of its capital, Naha
, and bordering on Kadena Air Base
The Ryukyus have been inhabited since the last Ice Age, when they were connected to the Asian continent. Until the seventeenth century, they were independent of Japan, maintaining rather informal contact with the rulers of Japan and China. By the 1100's, an agrarian society was forming on the islands, and three kingdoms began to form in Okinawa, called Nanzan, Chuzan, and Hokuzan. These kingdoms began trading with China and Japan, and co-existed peacefully until Nanzan leader Sho Hashi proposed their unification in the 1400's. The two subsequent dynasties of the Ryukyu kingdom became one of the largest trading entities in East Asia, the Oriental equivalent of Phoenicia: King Sho Shin, who reigned for fifty years in the late 1400's and early 1500's, extensively developed the infrastructure on Okinawa's main islands and is credited with forming the beginnings of a distinct Okinawan civilization.
This great civilization, however, was not to be. In 1609, the Shimazu clan of Satsuma on Kyushu Island invaded Okinawa at the head of a samurai army supplied by shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ryukyu, with virtually no military capabilities of its own, was swamped and forced to surrender, and for the remainder of the Edo era was politically subordinate to the daimyo of Satsuma. The kingdom continued to develop a hybrid Japanese-Chinese culture, and maintained its traditional language and customs, but doing so became more difficult with the Japanese occupation hanging over their heads.
In 1853, Okinawa was visited by a United States Navy steamship squadron under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry. He was on his way to Edo, and desired a base for his fleet while his ships surveyed Japan and the Bonin Islands. The next year, the United States signed a commerce treaty with the Ryukyus shortly after signing a similar treaty with the Tokugawa bakufu, and Japan's shogunate began to crumble.
In the wake of the Meiji Restoration, the new government in Tokyo made Okinawa an integral part of the Japanese state. To keep citizens of the islands from going into open revolt, they passed a law to allow local government structures to remain virtually unchanged, which kept Okinawa distinct from the rest of Japan, and also severely stunted its economic development in comparison to the rest of Japan. Many Okinawans left, forming a small diaspora of sorts in Japan and the rest of Asia. It wasn't until the heyday of the Japanese Empire that the government began pouring money into the prefecture by setting up military bases there, but that turned out to be both a blessing and a curse: in 1945, Okinawa was overrun by the United States Marines in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater.
During the Allied occupation of Japan following the war, the U.S. military took over many of Japan's bases in Okinawa, and the island was put under the direct control of the navy. While the locals were allowed to continue their everyday routines, the military was completely in control of their islands. In 1950, with the Korean War building up, the Allied occupation ended and Okinawa was placed under the control of a special U.S. "Civil Administration," which deferred to the military's wishes in most cases.
Following the Korean War, the U.S. military began seizing land in Okinawa to build up its bases there, eventually taking up half of the main island's land for various defense facilities. The military was now stepping on the locals' toes, and public outrage began to ferment. In 1959, an Air Force F-100 crashed into an elementary school there, killing 17 people on the ground and injuring over a hundred, and worsening the military's reputation there.
Finally, in 1965, Prime Minister Sato Eisaku visited Okinawa and made his first public appeal for its repatriation. The Vietnam War kept the White House from responding right away, but Richard Nixon finally relented and agreed once the Vietnamization process was underway. Seven years later, on May 15, 1972, Vice President Spiro Agnew officially returned Okinawa to the Japanese people at a ceremony in Tokyo's Budokan.
Today, the United States Armed Forces retain their domineering presence on Okinawa, and are still often at odds with the locals: in the past decade, the worst incidents have been the rapes of local schoolgirls, but pollution and other environmental impacts have also drawn criticism.
The rest of Okinawa has developed into a tourist mecca, an Asian version of Hawaii studded with resort hotels. Okinawa's average income is now on par with Japan's major urban centers, and the island hosted the G-8 summit of 2000. But there are still too many people who remember having to steal fruits of war from American depots during the occupation: old scars are hard to get rid of, and Okinawa is one scar in the U.S.-Japan relationship that will probably not go away for a long time.