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Okinawa 沖縄 in its narrow meaning refers to the largest island in the Ryukyu Islands chain 琉球列島, which extends from the southern end of Kyûshû in a southwest arc ending within sight of Taiwan. More broadly, Okinawa refers to Okinawa Prefecture 沖縄県, a political jurisdiction within Japan encompassing most, but not all, of the Ryukyu Islands (the northern Ryukyu Islands, including Amami-Ôshima 奄美大島, are part of Kagoshima Prefecture 鹿児島県). Many of the Ryukyu Islands are surrounded by coral reefs, and the region's climate is semi-tropical owing to warm ocean currents. The Ryukyu Islands are home to extensive land and sea biodiversity to a greater extent than anywhere else in Japan (one example), though these natural resources are under severe pressure from pollution and habitat loss.
Okinawa Prefecture was created in 1879 after Japan forcibly annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom 琉球王国. The main reason for Japan's takeover was the islands' geographic importance for military purposes. In other words, Japan's newly-created Meiji state did not want to see China, Russia or some other country dominate or occupy the islands comprising the territory of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Although nominally (and to some extent actually) independent, the kingdom had been under Japanese political domination since the early seventeenth century. In its rhetoric vis-à-vis the world, the Meiji state claimed that the Ryukyu Kingdom had long been an integral part of Japan. Despite such claims, however, Okinawans became second-class citizens within Japan, and some have even argued that Okinawa was in fact Japan's first colony. In the 1880s, Japan's government was willing to cede part of the Ryukyu Islands to China in return for commercial considerations and even signed a treaty to this effect, but it ultimately failed to gain ratification from the Qing court. Following Japan's defeat in the Second World War, the Shôwa Emperor 昭和天皇 (Hirohito) brokered an agreement in 1947 with the American Occupation forces to the effect that, in return for a short occupation of the mainland, the United States could retain possession of Okinawa Prefecture indefinitely. As a result, Okinawa Prefecture was under U.S. military control from 1945-1972. These and many other events belie the Japanese government's claim that it regards Okinawa to be an integral part of the homeland.
Although U.S. military governance ended in 1972 when Okinawa "reverted" to Japan, the American military forces did not leave. The vast majority of the roughly 48,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan are located on the Island of Okinawa, and military facilities (mainly bases and training areas) occupy approximately twenty percent of Okinawa's land (example: Kadena), much of it choice agricultural land that was taken at gunpoint from local farmers in the 1950s. The status of the U.S. military presence is the largest overall political issue in Okinawa. Most Okinawans resent the noise, danger (from accidents and crime), environmental degradation, and other aspects of the U.S. presence, but at the same time, the local economy would suffer severely were the bases to suddenly disappear. A major turning point in public sentiment came in September, 1995, when the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three marines sparked massive protests in Okinawa and elsewhere against the U.S. presence. Despite a strong sentiment among Okinawans that the military bases should be either eliminated or greatly reduced, and despite growing doubts about the military usefulness of these aging bases in light of the current world situation, as of this writing (April, 2003) the Japanese and U.S. governments remain committed to maintaining current troop levels with only minor changes.
Okinawa is Japan's poorest prefecture, with a per capita income level approximately 70% of the Japanese mainland average. Okinawa also suffers from the highest unemployment rate of any of Japan's prefectures. The major sectors of the economy are service industries connected with the military bases and tourism. Japan's central government also spends much money in Okinawa (some call it "guilt money"), which creates jobs that would otherwise not exist. The tourism industry employs many Okinawans, but only rarely in higher-echelon jobs. Most of that industry's profits go to corporations based elsewhere in Japan. Okinawa's standard of living is relatively high by total world standards, but it is low by Japanese standards. And the current economic situation is sustainable only at the expense of severe economic degradation, the U.S. military presence, and extensive subsidies from Tokyo. Some farsighted Okinawa leaders have sought to make the prefecture into a vast free trade zone, and open Okinawa up to the world as an economic market. The central government on Tokyo, however, has flatly rejected such ideas, and there is little hope of such bold initiatives coming to fruition in the foreseeable future.
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