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As Okinawa marks 40 years of postwar sovereignty, US bases still an irritant

Okinawa marked the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty from US postwar control Tuesday amid political deadlock over the relocation of a key US military base.

By Correspondent / May 15, 2012

The airplane carrying Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda flies US and Japanese flags as it arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, April 29.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File

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Tokyo

It has been exactly 40 years since the United States relinquished its postwar control over Okinawa, but events held Tuesday to mark reversion of the island chain to Japanese control were clouded by questions regarding the future of the continuing US military presence there.

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It was significant that the main ceremony, attended by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, US Ambassador to Tokyo John Roos, local leaders, and hundreds of Okinawan citizens, was held in Ginowan: The city of 95,000 people is also home to Futenma, a Marine Corps air base that has become the focal point of a seemingly intractable dispute over the US military footprint.

A heavy concentration of military bases is Okinawa's legacy of its ideal strategic location and almost three decades spent under US control after World War II. Futenma, by far the most controversial base, draws complaints about noise pollution, accidents, and crime.

Weeks before the reversion anniversary ceremony, the US and Japan appeared to have broken the deadlock over a two-part 2006 agreement. The deal would require Futenma's relocation to a less-populated part of the island and the transfer of about 8,000 troops and their dependents to the US Pacific territory of Guam by 2014.

After failing to win local support for Futenma's relocation, Tokyo and Washington finally delinked it from the troop transfer, announcing in late April that about 5,000 personnel would move to Guam, with another 4,000 or so spread around other bases in the region, including Hawaii and Australia. Futenma, however, will stay put for the time being.

The 1995 abduction and rape of a local 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen prompted the US and Japan to find ways of lessening the military presence on Okinawa, which makes up less than 1 percent of Japan's total area, yet hosts three-quarters of all US bases and just under half its 47,000 troops in the country.

Despite recent progress on the troop transfer, Japan's government has failed to persuade the people of Henoko, a town located along a largely unspoiled stretch of coastline, to agree to host Futenma's envisaged offshore replacement.

The government's job has been made harder by opposition among potential host communities elsewhere in Japan. Sympathy for the people of Okinawa – where 20 percent of the land is occupied by the US military – has not been matched by a willingness to share the burden.

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