THE US and Japan have pledged to make the presence of American troops on the island of Okinawa less onerous for Japanese residents there, but they are finding the process difficult and slow.
A summit planned in April between President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has prompted speculation here that the two countries will close a major US facility in an effort to placate Okinawans clamoring for an American withdrawal. The US sees its Okinawa outpost as critical to its strategic role in East Asia.
But the Japanese government is trying to dampen expectations of major change, says a Tokyo official who works on security matters. "What we don't want," concurs an American official involved in the base-reduction discussions, "is for people to get a misimpression of what we're up to or that it's easy, because it isn't."
Although these officials shy away from categorical statements, the two sides appear unlikely to close any major facilities in the southern and central part of Okinawa, where US bases and airstrips are most disruptive.
The rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl last September, for which three US servicemen were sentenced to prison yesterday (story, Page 6), has given new momentum to Okinawan demands for a reduced US presence. The island, under US occupation from the end of World War II until 1972, hosts 75 percent of US military facilities in Japan and more than half of the 47,000 US troops based here.
Japan endorses the US view that it needs to maintain 100,000 troops in East Asia. The Pentagon says 47,000 of those troops should be in Japan, with the rest at sea or in South Korea.
Of particular concern in the talks is Futenma Air Station, a Marine Corps facility situated in the city of Ginowan in Okinawa. Residents have complained about aircraft noise and worry that an accident could endanger civilian lives.
Much attention has been focused in recent weeks on the notion of closing Futenma, with Japanese politicians and American commentators speculating that other US facilities could accommodate the Marines. But representatives of both governments shake their heads when asked about the possibility.
"It would be very difficult to replicate the function that Futenma performs or would perform in a contingency," says the American official.
"If we could find some remote island which had enough space to hold the Marines and their air field, that would be good," sighs his Japanese counterpart. "But unfortunately there is no such island."
A bilateral "action committee" has until November to create a plan for base consolidation and other measures to ease the impact of the American presence. But officials from both governments say they are under pressure to forecast what they will accomplish during or before the April summit.
Both countries see the summit as a time to shore up the US-Japan security alliance. A 1960 defense treaty between the two countries guarantees that the US will protect Japan and that Tokyo will provide the American military with the facilities it needs. The security alliance also provides the US with its most important and strategic military outposts in East Asia. The facilities in Okinawa became even more crucial with the closure of US bases in the Philippines in November 1992.
Recent tensions between Taiwan and China are only the most recent reminder that military conflict is a very real possibility in Asia.
Two factors have put the alliance under scrutiny. One is the end of the cold war, which has caused some analysts in the US and Japan to wonder why the alliance is necessary in the absence of the Soviet Union.
US officials have said that while the US and Japan lack a common enemy, they share common goals - to ensure that peace prevails on the Korean Peninsula, keep China diplomatically engaged with the rest of the world, and make sure that the sea lanes of East Asia remain safe for commerce.
More pressing than this nuanced discussion of regional security is the ferment in Okinawa. It has become apparent that the Japanese government is in no position to ask municipalities in other parts of Japan to host the US military. Mayors whose towns or cities come up as possible future sites for US troops protest quickly and loudly.
In discussing how to consolidate or reduce bases in Okinawa, says the Japanese security official, "we have to find measures which would not require new facilities."
But squeezing bases without cutting troops or finding new sites is proving arduous, despite strenuous efforts. "We are crashing on Okinawa," says the US official, describing the pace of meetings and discussions. One site that may be closed or downsized, officials say, is the Marines' Northern Training Area, a huge swath of mountainous forest.