Okinawa Sends Tokyo and US A Clear Message: Reduce Bases

American troop presence on island may be an issue in the coming elections

The turnout was lower than expected, but the message was clear: A majority of Okinawans want the US troops in their midst to go someplace else.

Yesterday Okinawan voters overwhelmingly favored a proposition that called for a reduction of the US military presence in their chain of tropical islands.

The islands form the most southerly of Japan's prefectures and host more than 28,000 US troops - forces considered key to Japanese security and the stability of East Asia.

Just under 60 percent of the prefecture's registered voters participated, a figure that may have disappointed some critics of the US bases who had predicted a turnout 70 percent or higher.

But the critics could not have been upset with the rate of voters who favored the referendum's proposition - roughly 89 percent. The result means that slightly more than half of the prefecture's 912,000 voters, regardless of whether or not they went to the polls yesterday, want a reduced US presence.

Spurred by outrage over the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen last September, Washington and Tokyo have worked hard in recent months to ease Okinawan frustrations. Last April President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to reduce the amount of land the Americans use in Okinawa by 20 percent and to close a controversial Marine air station.

Some of these efforts require relocating facilities to other areas in Okinawa or moving them to other parts of Japan - steps that are causing as much controversy as they are intended to resolve.

But the result of the referendum shows that the base issue is "one of the problems that the government has failed to deal with successfully," says Tetsumi Takara, a law professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa.

The referendum is posing an immediate challenge for Mr. Hashimoto, who is trying to decide on the timing of a general election, which must be held by mid-1997. Recent news reports have said that the election could be held as early as the end of October.

Hashimoto has made resolving the Okinawan frustrations a priority partly in order to increase his stature as an international statesman and partly to maintain the unity of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party as elections approach. Some members of the LDP reportedly believe the Okinawans should not be blatantly forced to accept the US presence.

Opponents of the bases say the result of the referendum will ensure that the bases become an issue in the general election, which may in turn generate some further disagreements within the ruling party. "The result is an expression of longstanding distrust of the central government, and means that in the coming general election [the US presence in Okinawa] will become a central issue," says Hiroaki Fukuchi, president of the Okinawa Human Rights Association, a group that has campaigned against the bases.

Hashimoto and Okinawan Gov. Masahide Ota will meet tomorrow to discuss the result, and some analysts expect the prime minister to offer the Okinawans a package of benefits that may stem some of their anger.

"If Hashimoto wants to make sure the US bases to remain in Okinawa," says Masashi Nishihara, a research director at the government-backed National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo, "he will have to come up with some more favorable programs for Okinawa." As it is, the central government provides the prefecture with development funds that are seen as a form of compensation for hosting the US military.

Hashimoto would also like to win the governor's support in convincing a group of Okinawan landowners to renew their leases to the US military. Japan's Supreme Court last month upheld the prime minister's right to force the landowners to continue renting to the US, but Hashimoto would like to sidestep that measure partly to guarantee the political unity of his party. Forcing the landowners to renew the leases is also a legally cumbersome process that the government would like to avoid.

Hisahiko Okazaki, a former Japanese ambassador who has urged quick action to resolve the base issue in order not to jeopardize the US-Japan security alliance, argues that the strength or weakness of the turnout is immaterial since the proposition was worded in such a way that few would oppose it.

But he says he is worried that the result may embolden Governor Ota to take a strong stand against the central government. Mr. Okazaki also wonders how the US Congress will interpret the result since some American analysts have said that Okinawan anxiety is a sign that the US should bring home some of its 100,000 troops in East Asia.

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