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Okinawans clamor for quiet

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

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"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.

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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