US troops escape Okinawa voter wrath

In a Sunday election, a governor is elected who promises economic revival, shifting focus away from removal of a key US outpost in Asia.

Life may get a little bit easier for US troops stationed on one of America's most far-flung military outposts - the southerly Japanese island of Okinawa.

Voters there elected business adviser Keiichi Inamine as their new governor on Sunday, rejecting an incumbent who had agitated for a reduction in the burdensome US military presence on the island.

The political change is also good news for the US-Japan military alliance, a cold-war era partnership that both countries have been struggling to justify in recent years. Mr. Inamine's election may mean less opposition to the presence of US troops in Japan, which in turn might allow Tokyo to do more to help the US carry out its role as the self-appointed guarantor of Asian peace and stability.

President Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi are to discuss these and other matters at meetings in Tokyo later this week, provided Mr. Clinton does not stay home to monitor the Iraq situation.

Inamine was supported by Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and had campaigned on promises to revive the local economy and find a way to relocate a US Marine facility that has long epitomized Okinawan frustrations with the foreign army in their midst.

US airfields, training areas, and other installations occupy a fifth of the main Okinawan island; the prefecture hosts nearly two-thirds of the 47,000 US troops in Japan.

In the waning days of World War II, Okinawans were caught in the middle of a battle between US and Japanese soldiers. These days the island's residents remain trapped between the US military and the central government in Tokyo, which says it can't find anyplace else to put foreign troops. The defense treaty between the two countries obliges Japan to provide facilities for the US military.

Okinawa's outgoing governor, Masahide Ota, in recent years has appealed to both sides to change the situation, with some success. In April 1996, Clinton and then Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto agreed to a series of steps. The vulnerability of the military alliance was made obvious after Okinawan public opinion galvanized in September 1995, when three US servicemen raped an Okinawan schoolgirl.

The plan had called for the Marines' Futenma Air Station - a helicopter base and airfield - to be relocated within the prefecture, rather than closed. Now Inamine plans to build a combined civil and military airfield in northern Okinawa that the Marines could use. But he hasn't said where this facility would be built - meaning a community may be in for a rude surprise - and neither Japanese nor US authorities have endorsed the idea.

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