TOKYO — During the past year, the people of Okinawa have heard a lot of sympathetic words about how difficult it is for them to host more than 27,000 US military personnel.
Their frustrations have drawn international attention since last September, when a 12-year-old girl was raped by three American servicemen stationed in Okinawa, a chain of islands about 350 miles from the Japanese mainland. President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto promised in April to lessen the burden by reducing the amount of land the Americans use.
But on Sept. 8, Okinawan voters will get their say in a nonbinding referendum on the presence of US forces. Judging from media polling and analysts' forecasts, they are likely to register unabated frustration with the US military presence. "Anti-US base sentiment remains strong," says Tetsumi Takara, a law professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa.
Such a result would show that US and Japanese officials, now working on ways to expand their security ties, are not doing a good job of responding to Okinawan concerns. Yet the bases in Okinawa are central to the US military presence in East Asia, which analysts in many countries say is crucial for regional peace.
And Japan depends on US forces for its security, in part because of the country's Constitution, which bars the government from developing full-fledged military power.
The Okinawan concerns - the referendum will be useful in determining how widely they are shared - are rooted in history. Some Okinawans resent Japan for colonizing the islands in the late 19th century and then for using them as a buffer between approaching Allied forces and the main islands.
Okinawans regard the base issue as one of fairness. The islands, for example, constitute less than 1 percent of the Japanese land mass but are home to 75 percent of the US installations in Japan. They argue that they carry too much of the burden for an arrangement that benefits the whole country.
These arguments are generally ignored in Tokyo. Hisahiko Okazaki, an ex-ambassador who writes on security, likens Japan to a ship and Okinawans to passengers in a room near the engine. No other part of Japan wants to absorb the US troops, Okazaki notes, "but that's a fact of life. There is no other way but for the Okinawans to accept that room."
In April, spurred by public outrage over the rape, the US and Japan agreed to reduce by 20 percent the amount of land the Americans use in Okinawa over several years. The US said it would close Futenma Air Station, an airfield and helicopter base in a congested part of Okinawa. But the two sides also said they would not reduce the number of US troops and that Japan would find other facilities for displaced personnel.
Finding alternate sites has been difficult, to say the least. Mayors and legislatures in several parts of Japan have loudly opposed central government proposals to move US troops into their locales.
"Implementation is always more difficult than talking about these things," notes a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Japan's Supreme Court yesterday upheld Tokyo's right to force Okinawans to lease their land to the US, a decision that many say will increase the prospect of a strong vote against the US presence. The referendum will be the second in the history of Japan, a country with a tradition of strong rule by a central government. The first was on Aug. 4, when the northern town of Maki overwhelmingly opposed the local construction of a nuclear reactor. The vote was nonbinding but nonetheless incited stiff statements from Tokyo officials about the problems of direct democracy. "National policy cannot be determined by small numbers of people in particular localities," says Mr. Okazaki, the former ambassador.
Even so, many analysts say the Maki vote may very well inspire the Okinawans to turn out in large numbers on referendum day. On the other hand, the Okinawan situation is not as simple as a not-in-my-backyard vote on a reactor. "Having coexisted with the US bases for more than 50 years, some landowners and several other Okinawans see the presence of US troops as a necessary evil," says Seigen Nagayoshi, secretary general of a private group called the Okinawa Human Rights Association.
The single question on the ballot appears shrewdly written. It asks voters whether they favor the reduction and consolidation of the US military role in Okinawa and the revision of the bilateral agreement that governs the presence of US troops in Japan. Some parts of the agreement have long been contentious, so it is conceivable that those who generally support the US presence might also favor the referendum's proposition. And asking if voters favor a reduction is not that same thing as asking them to consider the US military role in principle. "It's well crafted," says the US official. "It could say, 'Do you believe the US should be withdrawn?' but it doesn't."