Japan wrestles with US presence

Opponents of a US helicopter base on Okinawa lose to political

For the opponents of US military bases on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, yesterday was a very sad day.

Speaking from her office in Naha, Okinawa's capital, municipal legislator Suzuyo Takasato paused for a moment to weep. "We cannot accept it," she said, referring to a plan to move a controversial US helicopter base from one part of Okinawa to another. "There are old men and women who have been working very hard here," she added. "They say they don't mind losing their lives if they can stop the relocation."

This sense of desperation arises because base opponents seem destined to lose their struggle even though democracy, fairness, and even the march of history appear to be on their side. Against them are the US, a superpower determined to maintain its military presence in East Asia, and the Japanese government, which is prepared to spend a lot of money to ensure that its security alliance with the US proceeds undisturbed.

Yesterday this contest reached another milestone. The mayor of Nago, home to about 50,000 people in northern Okinawa, said he would approve the relocation of the helicopter base to his city, which already hosts several US military facilities.

Mayor Tateo Kishimoto said it was the most difficult decision of his life and it was easy to see why. Voters there considered the issue in a referendum two years ago; nearly 54 percent rejected the relocation.

But the Japanese government is offering a development package worth just under $1 billion for northern Okinawa if Nago accepts the base. And the helicopter base isn't the only thing on Mr. Kishimoto's mind. The Japanese government has chosen the city as the site of next year's summit of the Group of Eight, the world's seven leading industrialized nations plus Russia.

Kishimoto's decision brought relief to Japanese and US officials. "It's much smoother this way," says one, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ever since September 1995, when three US servicemen raped an Okinawan schoolgirl, many people in Japan's southernmost prefecture have fought with determination to change circumstances forced upon them by World War II and the cold war. While the US occupation of Japan ended in 1952, Okinawa, where the Allies fought one of their bloodiest battles, did not revert to Japanese sovereignty until 1972. Under a cold-war-era security treaty, the US is committed to defend Japan; this country is obliged to provide the Americans with facilities.

Today the US maintains about 47,000 troops here. Just under half of them are based in Okinawa, which constitutes less than 1 percent of Japan's territory. Mass protests over the rape case drove home this inequity. In 1996, the US and Japan agreed to close the US Marines' Futenma Air Station, a helicopter base surrounded by dense urban development. But the closure came with a catch: a new base had to be built to accommodate the Marines.

Ms. Takasato and other Okinawan activists are not the only ones who feel the US presence is an anachronism.

"The end of the cold war and the transformation of the strategic environment of East Asia have eliminated the need to deploy the Third Marine Expeditionary Force and other military units" in Okinawa, argues a September 1998 paper issued by the conservative Cato Institute in Washington.

But US officials argue otherwise, saying that North Korea and other regional uncertainties demand the presence of "forward-deployed" US troops. President Clinton and other officials have spoken sympathetically of the Okinawans' situation, but say that it is up to the Japanese to decide where US bases should be.

The political reality is that no other part of Japan will accept a new US base, meaning that the US troops cannot

be moved someplace else. And because Okinawa is Japan's poorest prefecture, the financial incentives offered by the government in Tokyo tend to carry the day.

"The economy in Okinawa is depressed and can only survive with US bases," says Ryunosuke Megumi, a Naha-based political analyst.

So the US troops will probably stay.

"I think the US military really understands the Okinawan people and knows they cannot be here for so long," says Seigen Nagayoshi, an anti-base activist who heads the private Okinawa Human Rights Association. "It is the Japanese government that doesn't understand us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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