By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese island chain of Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary on Sunday of the end of U.S. occupation and its return to Japan with calls for more economic growth and fewer U.S. bases despite growing worries over its proximity to an increasingly assertive China.
Okinawa, a string of tropical islands off far southwest Japan much closer to Taiwan than Tokyo, suffered massive devastation in World War Two. Two months of bloody battles between U.S. and Japanese forces left as many as a third of its people dead. Nearly 30 years of U.S. rule followed.
On May 15, 1972, the islands were finally returned to Japan in what was seen as a hopeful step forward from the war's painful legacy. But today they still host the majority of U.S. military bases in Japan, a devil's bargain that has provided jobs but also fed worries about crime and military accidents.
Now, as China grows increasingly assertive in the Pacific region and tensions rise around nearby Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, Okinawans are concerned that they could once more end up on the front lines - especially after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"These are small islands," said a protester on the island of Miyako, host to Japan's newest army base, declining to give her name.
"Building up a military base will not protect them but rather make them a target of attack."
Okinawans have long resented having to bear the outsize burden of hosting U.S. bases, and the issue has occasionally sparked massive protests. Of 812 Okinawans polled by public broadcaster NHK in March, 56% said they strongly opposed U.S. bases; only a quarter of 1,115 people outside the prefecture said the same.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida acknowledged this, as well as the economic inequalities that still make Okinawa one of Japan's poorest areas, in remarks at a government ceremony in Okinawa.
"Even now, fifty years on, Okinawa still bears a heavy burden," he said. "We take this seriously and will do our utmost to reduce it."
Okinawa's current governor, Denny Tamaki, noted that despite his prefecture's small area, it still hosts 70% of U.S. bases in Japan, adding: "We still haven't been able to make Okinawa an island of peace."
In a written message, U.S. President Joe Biden - who will visit Japan next week - lauded bilateral ties and shared values.
"I am profoundly grateful for Japan’s resolute support for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law and for Okinawa’s contribution to advancing these ideals," he said.
Tensions in Okinawa are likely to rise further given that lawmakers in Kishida's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have said they want a commitment to more defence spending, including missiles that can hit targets on foreign soil - missiles that could be deployed on Okinawa.
Outside the ceremony, the mood was subdued.
"What has changed? Nothing much, really," one man, visiting a memorial for citizens who died in the war, told NHK.
"We can't celebrate or be happy. It's just another historial marker."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Mark Heinrich)