Americans must leave, says angry Okinawa

Author: By Richard Lloyd Parry in Okinawa

Tens of thousands of people on the island of Okinawa formed a human chain around Asia’s biggest US Air Force base yesterday in a powerful demonstration of anti-military sentiment, hours before the arrival of President Bill Clinton and the leaders of the Group of Eight nations.

More than 25,000 people linked arms around the 11-mile perimeter of the Kadena air base in central Okinawa, carrying banners calling for the removal of the massive American presence on the island. “Bases are places where they practise killing people every day,” read one message.

A demonstration organiser, Seshu Sakaihara, said: “Fifty-five years ago, Okinawa was the only place in Japan to suffer a land battle.

“In all of Japan we have the greatest experience of suffering this way, so we don’t want a repeat of this tragic history. If we permit the bases to stay we are allowing war.”

The G8 summit begins today in a luxury resort in the town of Nago against a background of bitter local dissent about the presence of the American bases and Okinawa’s place in modern Japan.

Until Japan’s rapid modernisation began in the last century, the islands were an independent kingdom with a distinct dialect, culture and cuisine, as much the product of Chinese, as Japanese, civilisation.

But since 1945, and the bloody battle of Okinawa which left 237,000 dead, the island has been dominated by a third great presence – the American military.Until 1972, Okinawa was governed by an American general, and even after reversion to Japan it is one of the most intensively Americanised places in Asia.

About 26,000 American soldiers are based on the island, including the largest population of Marines outside the United States. Despite occupying less than 1 per cent of Japan’s total land area, the prefecture is home to three-quarters of the country’s American bases. On the map they appear as big blobs, almost straddling the narrow island and bringing with them traffic congestion, pollution, accidents and crime.

Five years ago, the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three Marines led to months of protests, and forced the government of Tokyo to renegotiate its arrangements with the Americans. After months of negotiation, the US agreed to relinquish the Marine base in Futenma – a landing pad for helicopters and transporter planes right in the middle of a town – but only on condition that it be moved elsewhere.

The town chosen was Nago which – by no coincidence – is the venue for this weekend’s summit, the first G8 meeting hosted by Japan to be held outside Tokyo. The government is spending £500m onthe three days of meetings and related events; the local government hopes it will project the island’s advantages and bring tourism, investment and jobs into Japan’s poorest prefecture. But plenty of people in Okinawa regard it as little more than a cynical bribe, intended to sugar the bitter pill of the US bases.

Masahide Ota, the former governor of Okinawa, under whose leadership the anti-base movement achieved its greatest momentum, has spoken angrily of an attempt “to buy out [Okinawan] souls with money, rather than treat their feelings and aspirations with respect”.

Earlier this month, local anger was rekindled by twoincidents involving US servicemen. In the first, a 19-year-old Marine was caught drunkenly snoozing in the bedroom of a terrified 14-year-old girl whom he had molested after breaking into her home. In the second, an airman was arrested driving away from a man he had hit with his car.

President Bill Clinton, who arrives today, will be the first American president to have visited the island. His plan to give a speech at a great war memorial commemorating the dead of the 1945 battle is intended as grand symbolic gesture of appreciation for all that Okinawans have endured on America’s and Japan’s behalf. But for many in Okinawa, the suffering will not be over until the US bases are gone.

Mr Ota said: “The summit itself is just a two or three-day passing event, but the base issue is one that will determine whether Okinawans will have a happy life or an unhappy life in the 21st century.”

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