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Asia

Okinawans will have to wait for US to leave

The local government of Okinawa has been wrangling with Tokyo and Washington to seek a reduction in US military presence. Despite agreements, it is home to around half of the US military personnel stationed in Japan.

In February 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Tokyo to sign a new agreement on the realignment of US troops in Okinawa as part of Washington's broader reallocation of its military resources in the Asia-Pacific region.

Both Clinton and Hirofumi Nakasone, the then-Japanese foreign minister, used a press conference after the document was signed to repeat their commitment to the bilateral alliance that has bound the two countries since the end of World War II and expressed hope that the relationship would be further cemented in the years to come.

An Osprey aircraft departs Iwakuni Air Base in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi prefecture, southern Japan Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. (Foto:Kyodo News/AP/dapd) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, FRANCE, HONG KONG, JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA

Okinawans worry about the safety of the Osprey aircraft

Clinton said the agreement that will finalize the transfer of 8,000 US Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 and further units to bases in South Korea, Hawaii and northern Australia, "reflects the commitment we have to modernizing our military posture in the Pacific."

Clinton's visit to Tokyo was hailed as a breakthrough on an issue that had bedeviled relations between the two countries; but the people of Okinawa had seen it all before. And true enough, with the 2014 deadline just months away, this latest agreement is moot.

Pentagon rethinking

In any case, the Pentagon may very well be rethinking its military strategies for this part of the world given the recent belligerence of China, which is developing a powerful blue-water navy capability and has designs on the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands, part of the Okinawan archipelago; and also considering North Korea, which has nuclear weapons and is developing ballistic missile systems to deliver them.

The people of Okinawa are still demanding that the burden of the bases be better shared by the people of mainland Japan; they are tired of the noise, accidents and crime that have been a constant reminder of the American military since the US invaded the islands in the dying days of the war in 1945.

"For us, the biggest problems are caused by the Japanese and US governments, and I would say that things are getting worse," Yasukatsu Matsushima, a professor of economics at Kyoto's Ryukoku University, told DW.

Marine Corps helicopters and transport planes are seen on a tarmac of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station next to residential quarters in Okinawa, Japan. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye, File)

Both Tokyo and Washington are keen to shut down Futenma Air Station

"The Japanese government never even asks for the opinion of local people before it makes decisions about Okinawa; they simply do what the Americans want," said Matsushima, who is an activist for Okinawan independence.

"If you speak to the people of Okinawa, almost every one of them wants all the bases to simply disappear," he said. "But Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe insists that the US-Japan relationship is more important for Japan than the feelings of the Okinawan people."

'Every day, a new problem'

"Every day, it seems that we have a new problem involving the US military - a crime, an accident - and this is having a major impact on the lives of local people," he added.

Earlier this year, two US sailors were found guilty by the Naha District Court of raping and robbing a local woman in her 20s in a parking lot the previous October. The incident had occurred despite efforts by the US military to encourage its personnel to behave with more consideration to the people of Okinawa and, predictably, triggered outrage.

It also stirred memories of the gang rape of a girl aged 12 by two US Marines and US sailor in 1995.

Statistics compiled by local police suggest there have been more than 6,000 crimes committed by US personnel in Okinawa since 1972. There have also been a string of accidents, including a military helicopter crashing into the campus of Okinawa International University. There were no deaths in that incident, but in 1959, 17 pupils and teachers at Miyanomori Elementary School were killed when a US fighter jet crashed into the school building.

And new concerns over the safety of US military aircraft have been raised with the deployment of tilt-rotor Osprey transport aircraft. The Pentagon says they have a solid safety record; the people of Okinawa are not convinced and point to fatal accidents that occurred during the development of the aircraft.

New location, same idea

Symbolic to the whole debate over the future of the US military in Okinawa is Futenma Air Station. The Japanese and US governments are keen to shut the base - which stands amid a densely populated part of the city of Ginowan - and transfer its troops and functions to Guam and the newly enlarged US base "Camp Schwab" on the northeastern coast of Okinawa.

Thousands of Japanese gathered in sweltering heat on the southern island of Okinawa on Nov 08, 2009 to demand that a U.S. Marine base be moved out of the region, days ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama.

Okinawans have long protested the presence of the US military; here they stage a demonstration ahead of President Obama's visit to Tokyo in 2009

Local people say the development of Camp Schwab will cause irreparable damage to the local flora and fauna and noise caused by the fighter jets and helicopters will make life unbearable.

"We know that the problem at Futenma is concern over the safety of local people, but Okinawa's residents don't simply want that problem shifted to another part of the island," said Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University.

Leaving the Marines at Futenma was not much of an inconvenience to the US, Professor Ito pointed out, adding that there was arguably more of a military rationale for keeping the troops in that area rather than shifting them to the northeastern coast.

Ito's beliefs have been echoed by senior officials within the Pentagon; Major General James Kessler, commander of the Marine Corps Installations Command, appeared before the US Senate on May 9 and told the house, "We will be at Futenma for probably the next 10 to 15 years."

The issue, many Okinawans argue, is not where on the island the bases are, but the fact that they are there at all.

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