Okinawans clamor for quiet

Despite economic ploys from Tokyo, residents here are tired of being host to the most US troops.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Masuro Chibana, a high school science teacher, is in the middle of making a point, he sometimes has to stop class because he can't speak over the roar of planes taking off next door.

Same goes for the top floor of his house, where quiet conversations are often overpowered by the nearby Kadena Air Base, the largest in Asia and home to many of the 28,000 US troops stationed here - the bulk of the 48,000 parked at bases around Japan.

Yesterday, Mr. Chibana and some 27,000 other protesters held hands around the Kadena base to form a "human chain," demanding that the US withdraw the powerful military presence it has had here since the end of World War II.

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It is not just the headline-grabbers that incense local residents - earlier this month an intoxicated 19-year-old Marine allegedly molested a 14-year-old girl as she slept. Another serviceman confessed to a hit-and-run accident that wounded a pedestrian. It is the little things that make them want the US troops out - like the constant clatter of airplanes and helicopters.

"In this heat, we have enough trouble getting to sleep, the noise is just one more thing to wake you up," says Chinbana, wearing a towel over his head to block out the hot sun. "Our children are so used to this racket that when it's silent they feel uncomfortable."

Both the weather and the political climate may feel less than comfortable for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Clinton, who was due in Okinawa early this morning for the G-8 summit that begins here today. Ironically, Mr. Mori's predecessor, the late Keizo Obuchi, chose Okinawa in an attempt to quiet complaints in this southern and westernmost tip of Japan, where citizens have long grumbled about bearing the brunt of the US-Japan Security Treaty that has been in place for the past 40 years.

Frustrations are directed in part at the US, but also at the mainland Japanese. From the naicha - Okinawan for outsiders - people here have felt a sense of arrogance toward their unique culture and a history that once placed them under China's helm. Unwilling hosts to the last, brutal battle of World War II, during which a third of Okinawans lost their lives - some of them forced to commit suicide by losing Japanese commanders - many Okinawans view the bases as evidence that they've been pawns to be sacrificed.

As the complaints have grown louder, Tokyo has pledged to give more money to Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture. Along with the summit came 17 billion yen ($157 million) for new roads and a sparkling new convention center.

The choice of summit site - Nago, in less developed northern Okinawa - seemed particularly aimed at cajoling local leaders to allow the island's most controversial US air base, Futenma, to be moved there.

Instead, the summit locale is drawing the world's attention to the fact that many here don't think that thousands of young US soldiers make good neighbors. The local grievance list is long, including environmental pollution, a high crime rate, and a longing for the return of lush hilltops and beachfront property that are taken up by the bases, which cover 10 percent of the Okinawan land.

"My ancestral lands are here," says Ryuoske Tzukiyama, gesturing up towards the green, leafy slopes behind a moat and barbed wire. The hills are now covered with homes belonging to US troops. In view of the protest line, children swim in kiddy pools on lawns that put houses spaciously far from one another, la American suburbia, looking strangely out of place in a land of dense apartment complexes.

Though Mr. Tzukiyama and some 3,000 others here receive government compensation for territory that was confiscated for the bases, he says they'd rather have their land back. "We have to rent the land we live on, and my house is too small," says Tzukiyama, holding his nine-year-old son's hand. When he was that age, he says, American troops raped a schoolgirl he knew.

More recently, discontent reached a boiling point in 1995 when three US servicemen raped a 12-year-old girl. The chief of US forces in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, visited the governor after the incident and issued an apology, the first of its kind. And the US has promised to tighten ship, recently instituting a midnight curfew on troops and a ban on after-hours drinking.

Demands for a withdrawal of US bases, however, now also come from mainland Japan. "The bases are here for political reasons - to scare other countries in Asia," says Yoshiko Matsuda, a nun from Tokyo who came for the protest.

Having a substantial US military presence in Japan has been a cornerstone of Washington's Asian security scheme for the past half-century. The US role as a deterrent power, strategists say, requires American planes to be no more than a two-hour flight from the Korean Peninsula. An anchor here also keeps the US close to China and the Taiwan Strait.

Some, however, argue that Japan would add more to regional security if it weren't reliant on the US for its defense. "For the last 50 years, Japan has been lacking in foreign policy leadership because of the US-Japan relationship, and that is not enhancing the security of East Asia," says Fumiko Nishizaki, a professor of American diplomatic history at Seikei University in Tokyo. "The US presence there is a not something that is contributing to the thawing of remnants of cold war."

At the least, argues Masahide Ota, Okinawa's controversial former governor, the bases should be more evenly dispersed, if not removed altogether. "If the rest of Japan thinks it's important for the American forces to be here for the security of the region, they should share that burden, rather than sacrificing the weakest part of the country."

That kind of analysis rankles those who think that America's role in Okinawa has essentially been a positive one, particularly in economic terms. "Okinawan people have a kind of victimized way of looking at history," says Kyunosuke Meguni, an Okinawan political analyst who accused anti-US base activists of capitalizing on recent incidents to get more government funds. "Most of the crimes in Okinawa are committed by native Okinawans. If a woman goes to the police to report an assault committed by a Japanese man, it will only make three lines in the newspaper."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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