OVER the weekend, tens of thousands of Japanese took to the streets to protest the presence of the US military in Okinawa. Now the question is whether the momentum behind the rallies is gathering force or fading away.
Organizers of the Saturday demonstrations were pleased that they had orchestrated what was arguably the largest anti-American protest in Japan in 25 years. They had expected 50,000 participants to come to the main rally in Okinawa, and later said 85,000 attended. Police counted 60,000 at the protest. Ten thousand others rallied in Tokyo.
Angered by the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl early last month, allegedly by three US servicemen, Okinawans say they are unleashing 50 years of frustration over their armed, uninvited guests. Protesters carried signs that said: "US military, get out."
"What I was most concerned about didn't happen,'' says a Japanese official involved in US-Japan relations, noting that there was no rioting and that the protests focused on the military presence in Okinawa. Indeed, Saturday was not a day of anti-Americanism, but the official appeared to be trying to put the best face on the larger than expected turnout.
Officials on both sides of the Pacific anticipated Saturday's protests with something close to dread. The tensions over the US-Japan security relationship compound existing strains over trade, allegations of economic spying, and the fallout over Daiwa Bank's losses. Concluded in 1960, the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security is the linchpin of US military strategy in the Pacific and of Japan's capability to defend itself.
Since the rape, Okinawans have reiterated their complaints about the arrangement in unprecedented numbers and with unusual resolve. They feel that the end of the cold war should mean a reduction in the number of US troops in their midst.
Okinawa prefecture hosts 75 percent of the US military installations in Japan, even though it constitutes less than 1 percent of the Japanese land mass.
It would be one thing if easing this crisis were a matter of settling concerns about the legal status of US troops suspected of crimes, or even about the amount of land the US occupies. The problem is that there are unpredictable dimensions in the national politics of both countries.
US diplomats in Tokyo worry that protesters shouting "Yankee go home," as some people did on Saturday, could inspire Republican budget cutters in the US. Even though the Japanese government covers much of the cost of basing US troops here, there is the possibility that Congress will see protests as a reason to pull back some of the 100,000 troops the US maintains in East Asia.
A US House subcommittee on Asia and Pacific affairs announced last week that it would hold a hearing on Wednesday to review US-Japan relations.
In Japan, the response to the Okinawan outrage is complicated by the mixed politics of the coalition government and the imminence of general elections, expected early next year.
The head of the coalition, Premier Tomiichi Murayama, is a Socialist whose party has long criticized the US-Japan security alliance and the presence of the US military.
The governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, has refused to sign documents that would force Okinawan landlords to renew leases with the US military that expire in March. In order to continue the leases, Mr. Murayama will have to sue the governor to win the right to sign them himself, an act that would further disgust already disillusioned Socialist supporters.
"Of all the crises this coalition has faced," says John Neuffer, an expert on Japanese politics at the Mitsui Marine Research Institute in Tokyo, "this may be the most difficult. This is the first time you have tens of thousands of people in the streets."
The popular appeal of the issue is one reason why Murayama's coalition partners, members of the Liberal Democratic Party, who have traditionally supported the alliance, are all but silent. Indeed, some young but influential members of the LDP - citing the airspace and telecommunications frequencies ceded to the US military - say there are reasons to review the terms of the American presence.
The Japanese government official says Tokyo will have to satisfy some of the Okinawans' demands that bases be reduced or relocated, something that Murayama has hinted at in recent days.
In addition to the need to preserve his political integrity, Murayama is also under pressure to resolve the crisis before President Clinton pays a state visit to Japan from Nov. 19 to 21. Says Murayama, "The issue of Okinawa will be the issue that determines the fate of this Cabinet."