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Community Conversation. Okinawa in the Japanese Empire: A Military History

On March 8, 2022, over 119 participants attended YCAPS-SPF co-sponsored webinar presented by Hiroyuki Shindo from the National Institute of Defense Studies to discuss  Okinawa’s military history as a part of the Japanese Empire until World War II. The webinar was moderated by John Bradford, Executive Director of YCAPS and was joined by a wide range of participants with a great interest in Okinawa and its history, both local to Okinawa and from elsewhere in Japan and the world. 

Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo started his presentation with a map of the Western Pacific and Okinawa, including the surrounding nations and territories. In this context, he explained that Okinawa was not militarily important until late in the Pacific War. This was illustrated by Japan’s Meiji-era military strategy, which was cemented by Japan’s decisive victory at the battle of Tsushima, which ended the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. From that time forward, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) strategy included swift, massive attacks that would lead to a decisive naval victory. In the absence of a direct threat, the IJN concluded that the USA had the only navy in the region capable of challenging Japanese maritime dominance, and began to prepare for war.

Due to these early 20th century assumptions, the IJN planned to assemble their fleet at Okinawa to confront the Americans head on. However, advancements in naval and aerial warfare both raised the perceived threat of the US and led IJN strategists to believe that the inevitable decisive battle would take place much further from the Japanese mainland. As such, IJN established a forward naval base on Truk island in the Caroline Islands. In the 1930s, Okinawa remained a backwater island with only a civilian airfield while the naval battles occurred far to the south and east.  

It was not until 1943 that Okinawa became a vital strategic point of defense for Japan. When it became clear that the US planned to invade Okinawa as a staging point for invading Japan’s main islands, defense of Okinawa became vital to the defense of Japan as a whole. Okinawa became a major battlefield during mid-1943 after the US recaptured the Philippine Islands and set their sites on Okinawa. Japan, likewise, recognized Okinawa’s importance in attacking the Japanese mainland and intensely fortified it.  

During the Q&A portion of the webinar Shindo responded to a range of questions, including details of the battle of Okinawa, why the IJN invested so much in planning for war with America well before any signs of conflict arose, when the academic “threat” of the US became a real threat to the IJN’s ambitions, divergent perspectives and priorities between the IJN and the Imperial Japanese Army, as well as the role that Japan’s other territories in the Pacific played in the war. A US service member who has spent many years on Okinawa also provided comments on the importance of reflecting on Okinawans’ perspectives both during and after the war, recommending that all attendees should visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial. The webinar concluded with a collective renewed interest in Okinawa’s past and present.