Money Talks in Keeping US in Okinawa

A mayoral election on Sunday muddied the waters for the US-Japan military alliance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In some ways, Okinawans are like the guy in the old joke who complains to his therapist that his brother thinks he's a chicken. The therapist inquires gently, "Why don't you take him to an institution?"

"We would," the man replies. "But we need the eggs."

For many Okinawans, the 28,000 US troops in their midst are an oppressive, noisy, and occasionally criminal presence. At the same time, the American bases mean lots of eggs - thousands of jobs and lucrative subsidies from Tokyo.

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On Sunday, the tension between these two realities came into sharp relief. Voters in the small Okinawan city of Nago narrowly rejected a mayoral candidate who opposed the construction of a massive, floating US helicopter base in nearby waters.

Instead they elected a candidate who stayed vague on the issue but promised subsidies and economic assistance for Nago - carrots being offered if the installation is built.

Shinyu Isa, an activist who opposes the US presence, spells out the paradox: "This election proved that we want both money and 'no American bases' at the same time."

The US-Japan military alliance, which Washington says is the keystone to peace and security in East Asia, has many vague aspects. At first blush Tateo Kishimoto's victory seems like a plus for officials who want the alliance to prosper. At least his opponent, who vowed to stop the heliport, was not elected.

But here is what mayor-elect Kishimoto said yesterday about the project: "The central government and prefectural government [of Okinawa] should discuss the issue." As for the people of Nago, he added: "We're not in a position to say we're for it or against it. But for the time being we are not going to accept it."

Two years ago, after Okinawans rose up in outrage over the September 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen, the US and Japan agreed to steps designed to make the American presence less onerous. The pact was an acknowledgement that it was unfair to put 75 percent of all US military installations in Japan in Okinawa Prefecture, whose islands comprise less than 1 percent of the nation. US bases cover a fifth of the main island.

The high point was the promise to close the Marines' Futenma Air Station, a helicopter airfield that has become surrounded by homes, shopping districts, and even elementary schools. The catch was that Japan would have to provide the Marines a comparable facility within Okinawa.

IN a measure that the US and Japanese hoped would placate Okinawans, they announced a plan to build the heliport, an installation the size of three aircraft carriers that would incorporate groundbreaking technology. The idea was to put the Marine helicopters at least some distance from Okinawans.

Not far enough, it turns out. In December, the citizens of Nago voted against the heliport in a referendum, and Friday Okinawan Gov. Masahide Ota announced his opposition. The refer- endum is nonbinding, but the governor has the power to block the project unless Tokyo undertakes the politically sensitive step of passing a law to circumvent him.

Mr. Ota is in a difficult position: He is trying to win more compensation from Tokyo for hosting the bases while appearing as if he is making progress toward his announced goal of having the Americans out by 2015. He faces reelection in November, again allowing Okinawans to decide whether they are willing to put up with a foreign army.

The likely result of Kishimoto's victory will be the freezing of the plan to build the heliport. That will frustrate Okinawans who want the US out of Futenma, and, analysts say, leave the alliance vulnerable should something untoward happen. The catastrophe in Italy last week, where a low-flying US jet inadvertently caused the deaths of 20 people riding in a mountain cable car, did not go unnoticed in Okinawa.

"This tense situation could last quite a few years until an accident takes place - at which point it will be too late," says Mike Mochizuki, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. If something like the cable-car incident were to happen, he adds, public furor would be "disastrous" for the alliance.

Underlying the tussle over the American presence is the wider context of security in East Asia. The US and Japan say that no reduction in the American presence is desirable for the foreseeable future - especially while North Korea remains unstable.

But even North Korea, burdened by a failing economy, is looking pretty quiet these days. In other respects, peace is breaking out all over. Japan is forging stronger ties with Russia and China, two countries it fought this century. As Okinawans point out, it is getting harder and harder to defend the need to base so many US troops so far from home.

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