US Military's Plan for Ocean Heliport Sends Okinawa Spinning

In a makeshift office surrounded by azure water, white sand, and lush green foliage, gray-haired Yuji Kinjo vows to fight the "demon" American military.

A plan to construct a gigantic sea-based facility for US armed forces has shaken a tiny community called Henoko near Nago city on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

"We are not going to let Americans come onto this pristine sea," says Mr. Kinjo, an adviser to a Nago citizens' group opposing the proposed ocean "heliport" for helicopters based elsewhere in Okinawa.

The plan is part of a joint US-Japan effort to appease opposition to the presence of American military forces on this remote, watery corner of Japan. Those forces are central to the US security strategy in Asia.

Last year, the US agreed to give up Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, located in densely populated central Okinawa, in return for being able to build an offshore heliport. The decision came after the 1995 rape of a Japanese girl by three American servicemen sparked protests in Okinawa.

But when Nago, a community of 1,400, was chosen for the heliport, many residents protested. "As soon as the news came in, I got so incensed that my entire body trembled with rage," Kinjo says. The heliport is expected to be 1,600 yards long and 550 yards wide.

Okinawans in general say they have been discriminated against by their government. Okinawa makes up 0.6 percent of the total of the country's land mass but is home to 75 percent of the US military forces in Japan. In a 1996 referendum, nearly 90 percent of voters in Okinawa favored downsizing the US military presence. The vote was not legally binding.

Anti-US activists say trading Futenma for the new heliport is a shell game. The US military, they say, is not interested in reducing its forces in Okinawa but in exchanging the rapidly aging Futenma, built in 1945, for a state-of-the-art airbase.

"We don't call it a 'reduction' but rather a relocation to beef up the military forces," says Yoshitami Ohshiro, a city councilman in Nago. "We know that once the sea base is built up, they will want to expand it."

Supporters of the heliport are mostly Nago's conservative politicians and business leaders. They say the project will inject needed development money into the area. Since 1972, when the US ceded control of Okinawa back to Japan, Tokyo has poured in nearly 5 billion yen (about $40 million at current exchange rates) to develop Okinawa.

"The base would create more opportunities in this area," says Katsuo Shimabukuro, a member of the Nago business community. "I believe bases also serve national defense and deterrence."

"People like me are always worried about a decent job, post-retirement life, and our children's future," says Hitoshi Tokuda, a construction worker.

His parents moved to Henoko from a neighboring island to start a business after learning an American base had come to the area. The living standard in the late 1960s was one of the highest in Okinawa due to the American presence. Dollars, then worth about three times as much as today, helped boost the economy.

But most Okinawans say their comfortable setting has been damaged by economic development and the military presence. Antibase activists are concerned that the gigantic new American military facility off Henoko would disturb their daily life and devastate the environment.

Okinawan Gov. Masahide Ohta first opposed the construction of the offshore airfield. Governor Ohta, however, now is distancing himself from the issue and not taking any stance. He suggests Tokyo negotiate directly with local residents.

In the last few months one member after another of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's Cabinet visited Okinawa to pressure Ohta to cooperate with Tokyo. Many locals say Tokyo apparently muzzled Ohta and Nago City Mayor Tetsuya Higa by making a promise of pumping more public money into Okinawa.

Prime Minister Hashimoto has promised that the government would not pursue the offshore airfield plan against the will of local residents.

According to a poll conducted by the Okinawa Times newspaper in September, about 60 percent of Nago residents are against the new facility, while 21 percent are in favor. Nago has set Dec. 21 as the date for a referendum on the facility.

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