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Sleepless in Okinawa

Julian Ryall
November 12, 2012

Tensions in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa are running high after a spate of incidents involving US servicemen. Residents also say their health is jeopardized by unbearable noise, amid safety fears about aircraft.

US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station (Photo: EPA/KIMIMASA MAYAMA)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Nearly 1,200 civilians living near the United States Marines Corps' Futenma Air Station, one of the largest US military facilities on the strategically important Japanese island of Okinawa, filed a law suit demanding in compensation for years of unrelenting aircraft noise.

Ginowan has grown up around the perimeter wire of a base that can trace its history back to the US invasion of the islands towards the end of World War II. Residents are now demanding some 470 million yen (5.9 million US dollars; 4.65 million euros) in damages over high noise levels measured since July, 2009.

The amount of noise pollution, the plaintiffs claim, is worse than sitting in a constantly moving underground train.

The suit, filed last Thursday in the city of Naha, is to run in parallel to another compensation claim that opened in October last year by no fewer than 22,058 people living close to the base, which is home to the US Air Force's 18th Wing and associated units and typically has 90 aircraft based there at any given time. That suit, against both the Japanese and US governments, claimed "explosive noise" pollution is damaging their way of life and health.

A Dutch F-16 aircraft prepares for landing at the Decimomannu airbase, in Sardinia, Italy, Thursday, March 24, 2011. French fighter jets struck an air base deep inside Libya and destroyed one of Gadhafi's planes Thursday, and other coalition bombers struck artillery, arms depots and parked helicopters. (ddp images/AP Photo/Rosi Coroneo)
Plaintiffs in the court case say noise, night and day, from the base is damaging their healthImage: dapd

"There are 350,000 people living near that base and we are exposed to aircraft noise day and night, as well as the risk of deadly aircraft crashes," said Shusei Arakawa, a former two-term mayor of Okinawa City and the lead plaintiff in the suit, as it got under way.

Tip of the iceberg

As upsetting and frightening as it may be, noise from Futenma and the other US military facilities on Japan's most southerly prefecture is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as local people are concerned. And while they have lived with the US presence for decades - local people still consider it to be a form of occupation - recent events have raised resentment to new levels.

On November 6, two US sailors were indicted on charges of raping and injuring a local woman. Seaman Christopher Browning and Petty Officer Skyler Dozierwalker, both 23 and based at the Fort Worth Naval Air Base in Texas, have been accused of attacking and injuring the woman on October 16 in a parking lot in central Okinawa.

Browning has also been charged with stealing about 7,000 yen from the woman and Okinawa police told local media that both men have admitted the charges.

The US authorities expressed anger that two of their personnel had tarnished the reputation of the military in Okinawa and immediately imposed a nighttime curfew on all troops throughout Japan.

A US solider in the invasion of Okinawa
The airbase has been on the island since soon after the US invasion at the end of World War IIImage: picture alliance/akg-images

A little over two weeks later, another serviceman, who has not been named, broke the curfew to drink at a bar in Okinawa and later claimed he was too drunk to remember entering a third-floor apartment, hitting a teenage boy, kicking a television and falling out of the window, breaking his ribs.

Call for treaty changes

Such is the public anger that some Japanese media are even suggesting that it is time for Japan to renegotiate the treaty covers the US military's presence in Japan.

"Another suspected crime by a US serviceman in Okinawa Prefecture has indisputably demonstrated the need to to revise the Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the United States," the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun thundered in a recent editorial.

Hirokazu Nakaima, the governor of Okinawa, traveled to Washington in late October to file an official protest with the US government, describing the alleged rape as "extremely regrettable."

Gov. Nakaima also used the meeting to demand that the US transfer the Osprey transport aircraft that were recently deployed at the Marine Corps' Futenma base to other military facilities in Japan or abroad.

Safety fears denied

Before the first aircraft arrived in Okinawa, there were demonstrations against the deployment on the grounds that the advanced vertical take-off and landing aircraft are unsafe. The US has denied that claim and says early teething problems that the aircraft experienced have been largely solved and that recent incidents involving MV-22 Ospreys were the result of pilot error.

The apologies and explanations that Gov. Nakaima's delegation received in Washington has done little to pacify local people, who will have been encouraged by the announcement by the Japan Restoration Party, a new political grouping that has emerged as a credible threat to Japan's traditional two-party system, that all foreign troops should leave the country by 2045.

An Osprey aircraft prepares to land at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa (Photo: Kyodo News/AP/dapd)
The US says the vertical take-off MV-22 Ospreys are safe, but residents are not so sureImage: Kyodo News/AP/dapd

That target date has been set out in a draft of the party's campaign pledges for the next general election, which must be held by next summer.

The party has chosen 2045 as it would mark the 100th anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.

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