Reshuffling US Troops in Okinawa Fails to Lessen Ire of Many Islanders

Walter Mondale, who has done much to improve US-Japan relations in his three-and-a-half years as ambassador to Tokyo, leaned into a microphone yesterday and implored dozens of reporters to see the big picture.

He and other top US and Japanese officials had just approved measures designed to make the roughly 28,000 US troops stationed in Okinawa less of a burden. The issue was thrown into public scrutiny in September 1995, after the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three US servicemen stationed there.

"Both nations have really tried, in a very intensive way, to try to become good neighbors to our friends in Okinawa," he said. "A lot of work [is] yet to be done, but I think it's fair to say that more serious work has occurred in the last year than maybe in the last 25 years put together. And I think Okinawans will see a big improvement in their life as a result."

Ambassador Mondale, who will wrap up his tenure here shortly, may feel some closure, but some Okinawans aren't so sure. "Who are these efforts for?" asks Suzuyo Takazato, a municipal legislator in the Okinawan city of Naha, who has campaigned against the security alliance between the two governments. "They're only for themselves - only to retain the current level of US forces in Okinawa."

The bottom line, some Okinawans say, is that they will have to keep shouldering an unfair load. The island prefecture constitutes less than 1 percent of the Japanese land mass, but hosts - at least until some of the base closures announced yesterday take effect - 75 percent of the US facilities in the country.

In some ways both the ambassador and the local politician are right. The plan struck between the two governments contains many changes. But it also leaves a major element of the US presence in Okinawa undisturbed: the number of troops stationed there.

The plan takes away existing burdens, but it also creates new ones. The word that the US would close the Marines' Futenma Air Station, which is situated in an urban area in central Okinawa, was greeted with widespread approval when it was first announced at a US-Japan summit last April.

Yesterday the two governments clarified how they will replace the air field: by constructing a massive platform off the shores of Okinawa. Officials haven't decided exactly what technology will be used for the platform - it may sit on piles or float on huge pontoons - but they say it must be in Okinawa because it has to serve the Marine Corps division stationed there.

Disappointed Okinawans

"I wanted to see an unconditional return of Futenma, not a transfer to another location inside Okinawa," says Tetsumi Takara, a law professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa. He worries that the sea-based platform will damage the environment and disrupt the Okinawan fishing industry.

US and Japanese officials stress that the measures approved yesterday will mean the return of approximately 21 percent of the land the US military now uses in the island prefecture. That is the largest amount of land returned to Japan since 1972, when the US gave Okinawa back to Japan, ending an occupation that began with one of the grimmest battles of World War II.

But much of the 12,000 acres being handed back to Okinawan control are rugged, hard-to-exploit territories in the northern part of the main island. "These are not important locations for Okinawans," says Professor Takara. Futenma is the only major installation in central and southern Okinawa to be closed.

Land is not the only issue, however. Mondale extols the "breadth and richness of detail" in the package of measures, which range from the legal to the cosmetic.

Being less intrusive

Japan's government, for instance, is planning to provide advance payments to Japanese who claim compensation for a loss or injury arising from the presence of US forces. The US military has stopped conducting training hikes on public roads in Okinawa and taken additional steps to reduce aircraft noise at some facilities. It also plans to make some of its vehicles in Okinawa more discreet and move a live-fire exercise to other parts of Japan.

Despite these changes, however, American and Japanese officials insist that the capability of the US forces based here will not be compromised. The officials argue that, even though the Soviet threat that gave rise to their alliance has disappeared, it remains essential to the peace and stability of Asia.

During the past year, Japanese officials tried to spread the burden of hosting US forces to other parts of the country, with almost no success. "We get very strong opposition from local communities when we try to do that," says one foreign-ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The issue of Okinawa - how best to reduce the burden while maintaining the capability of US forces - continues," he adds.

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