United States Hands Okinawa to Japan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The return of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands to Japan in May of 1972 marked a final stage in the return of Japanese territory taken by the United States at the end of World War II. The event also served to reinvigorate the alliance between the United States and Japan that had faltered during the years preceding this event.

Summary of Event

The Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is the largest, extend for approximately eight hundred miles between the southern end of Kyūshū and Taiwan. Although the Ryukyu Islands were not officially considered part of Japan until the late nineteenth century, Japan’s connections with the islands go back to prehistoric times, and the Ryukyu language is closely related to the Japanese language. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Japanese government moved to establish full sovereignty over the Ryukyus, officially wresting them from the Chinese, who also claimed rights over them as a result of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. The islands remained a part of Japan until the end of World War II, when the United States assumed control over them. The island of Okinawa itself was the location of one of the great battles leading to the defeat of Japan in the latter stages of the war. Okinawa, return to Japan [kw]United States Hands Okinawa to Japan (May 15, 1972) [kw]Okinawa to Japan, United States Hands (May 15, 1972) [kw]Japan, United States Hands Okinawa to (May 15, 1972) Okinawa, return to Japan [g]East Asia;May 15, 1972: United States Hands Okinawa to Japan[00740] [g]Japan;May 15, 1972: United States Hands Okinawa to Japan[00740] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 15, 1972: United States Hands Okinawa to Japan[00740] Sato, Eisaku Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Okinawa Johnson, Lyndon B. Johnson, U. Alexis Kissinger, Henry Aichi, Kiichi Meyer, Armin H. Miki, Takeo

Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sato and U.S. president Richard M. Nixon meet in California in January, 1972, to discuss the repatriation of Okinawa.

The return of the Ryukyu Islands was an issue at the time of the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951 that formally ended the postwar occupation of Japan. Japanese Peace Treaty (1951) San Francisco, Treaty of (1951) While the treaty recognized Japan’s “residual sovereignty” over them, they remained under U.S. administrative control. Public sentiment in the United States, resulting from the large number of American lives lost in the Battle of Okinawa during the war, played some part in this decision to control the islands, but of greater significance was the strategic importance of the islands in light of the emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union at that time. Under the terms of a security treaty entered into by the United States and Japan at the same time as the signing of the peace treaty, the United States was allowed to keep military bases in Japan and to station troops there for the protection of both countries. Retaining control over Okinawa, where the United States also maintained bases, was seen as an extension of this mutual security system.

When the security treaty, which had been put into effect for ten years, came up for renewal in 1960, considerable opposition arose in Japan. As the decade progressed, the likelihood of even greater controversy was expected when the question of renewal came up again in 1970. Widespread Japanese opposition to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam at this time increased the volatility of the issue. Opponents of the security treaty were also extremely vocal in demanding the return of the Ryukyu Islands. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s newly appointed ambassador to Japan, U. Alexis Johnson, concurring with the outgoing ambassador, Edwin O. Reischauer, stressed the importance of the reversion of Okinawa in maintaining the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

In 1967, at the request of Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sato, discussions began on the return of the Bonin Islands, an island group to the east of the Ryukyus that had been taken over by the United States at the end of World War II and that included the island of Iwo Jima, the site of another famous battle. It was generally believed in both Japan and Washington that the return of the Bonin Islands would serve as a prelude to the return of the Ryukyus and Okinawa as well. Negotiations between Ambassador Johnson and Japanese foreign minister Takeo Miki ensued on the terms for the return of the Bonin Islands. A major issue they discussed was the manner in which the Battle of Iwo Jima would be commemorated on the island after its return to Japanese control. Following the resolution of this issue, the return of the Bonins was officially announced at a meeting between President Johnson and Prime Minister Sato in Washington, D.C., in November of 1967. The islands were restored to Japan by presidential executive order the following June.

At the time of the official announcement of the return of the Bonin Islands, reference was also made to the return of the Ryukyus. The process of negotiation on this issue was temporarily delayed by the 1968 election in the United States, in which Richard M. Nixon replaced Johnson as president. With the renewal of the mutual security treaty looming even closer now, the new president and his closest foreign policy adviser, national security adviser Henry Kissinger, both saw the return of the Ryukyus to be of major importance. For this to occur, however, two major areas of difference between the two countries still needed to be resolved. The first was the continued presence of U.S. bases on Okinawa (considered vital to U.S. security interests); the second involved storage of nuclear weapons on these bases, which the Japanese government opposed. President Nixon agreed to drop the matter of nuclear storage if the bases themselves could be retained.

Negotiations were then set into motion to establish the general agreement for the return of the islands. Major players in this process included Nixon’s newly appointed ambassador to Japan Armin H. Meyer and Japanese foreign minister Kiichi Aichi. Completion of this phase of the negotiations and the announcement of the return of the islands were planned to coincide with a visit by Prime Minister Sato to the United States in November, 1969. The timetable was met, and the return of the islands was officially announced at that time. Negotiation of the many technical details surrounding the agreement continued until mid-1971, and the U.S. Senate passed the completed treaty by a vote of eighty-four to six on November 10 of that year. The Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa formally reverted to Japan at a ceremony held in Tokyo on May 15, 1972.


When the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed in 1951, the United States retained control of the Bonin and Ryukyu islands. Control of these territories remained a point of contention between the United States and Japan during the years that followed. As tension arose over the renewal of the 1951 U.S.-Japanese security treaty, first in 1960, and then again in the years approaching 1970, the return of these islands to Japan became an area of major foreign policy conflict between the two countries. The return of the Bonin Islands during the final years of the Johnson administration and the return of the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa, during the presidency of Richard Nixon served to settle this ongoing dispute as well as to reinvigorate the U.S.-Japanese security alliance during a critical period in their history. Okinawa, return to Japan

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckley, Roger. U.S.-Japan Alliance Diplomacy, 1945-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discusses the basic diplomacy surrounding the reversion of the islands to Japan and places it in the larger context of U.S.-Japanese relations in the postwar era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Havens, Thomas R. H. Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan, 1965-1975. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. Stresses the role of the Vietnam War as a backdrop to the Okinawa negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iriye, Akira, and Robert A. Wampler, eds. Partnership: The United States and Japan, 1951-2001. New York: Kodansha International, 2001. Contains useful essays by Nathaniel Thayer on the U.S. ambassadors involved in the return of the Bonin and Ryukyu Islands and by Sheila A. Smith on the Okinawa question generally.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kim, Hong N. “The Sato Government and the Politics of Okinawa Reversion.” Asian Survey 13 (November, 1973): 1021-1035. Provides a detailed discussion of the politics of reversion from the Japanese side.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Offers a key participant’s view of the Okinawa negotiating process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarantakes, Nicholas Evan. “Continuity Through Change: The Return of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, 1967-1972.” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 3 (Spring, 1994): 35-53. Provides a detailed, step-by-step account of the negotiations for the return of both the Bonin and Ryukyu Islands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schaller, Michael. Altered States: The United States and Japan Since the Occupation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Offers another account of the diplomacy surrounding the event and places it in the larger context of postwar U.S.-Japanese relations.

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Categories: History