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Tensions Over Air Base Could Shift U.S. Military Role in Japan

May 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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During a visit to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the alliance between Japan and the U.S., despite an ongoing feud over an airbase in Okinawa. GlobalPost reporter Sonia Narang reports from Japan on the recent protests over the marine base.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As Hari reported in the other news, Secretary of State Clinton was in Japan this morning. While there, she played down concerns over a disputed American air base. Mrs. Clinton stressed, the Washington-Tokyo alliance was more vital than ever, given regional threats such as North Korea.

Sonia Narang of GlobalPost, the online foreign news service, recently traveled to Okinawa and filed this report.

SONIA NARANG, GlobalPost: Hundreds of protesters greeted Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama this month during his visit to Okinawa Island, 400 miles south of mainland Japan. The protesters came from all over the island to make one thing clear: They want the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station off Okinawa.

WOMAN (through translator): When I think of the future of my children and grandchildren, we don’t need any bases.

SONIA NARANG: The future of U.S. forces in Okinawa is such a contentious issue that it could unseat the recently elected prime minister, who some worry is waffling on his pledge to move Futenma base operations outside Okinawa.

Dr. Doug Lummis is a former Marine and political scientist based in Naha, Okinawa.

DOUG LUMMIS, political scientist: He overestimated his political charm and was surprised when he came to Okinawa and said, “Please accept the base,” and everybody said no.

SONIA NARANG: During World War II, the island was a bloody staging ground for clashes between Japanese and American forces, decimating one-fourth of Okinawa’s civilian population. The U.S. didn’t cede Okinawa to Japanese control until 1972.

The location is still considered important to American interests, as a way to keep a check on China and North Korea. So, the U.S. pressure on Prime Minister Hatoyama has been intense.

Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Powell is a spokesperson for the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa.

LT. COL. DOUGLAS POWELL, spokesman, U.S. Marine Corps: Stability in the region is due in large part to the U.S. military presence. We are the glue that holds together security in the region.

SONIA NARANG: The prime minister had said he would decide where to move the base by May 31, but he angered many during his recent visits by saying that he won’t move it off the island at all. Instead, he will just relocate some of its operations elsewhere on the island, as Japan and the U.S. originally agreed back in 1996, after mass protests followed the rape of a local girl by servicemen. That move was supposed to take effect in 2014.

Wearing an Okinawan-style shirt, Hatoyama addressed a large group gathered at a junior high school near Futenma base. He insisted it would be impossible to completely shut down Futenma because the strong U.S. military footprint here helps maintain national security.

Yoichi Iha was upset. As mayor of the Ginowan City, he has long fought for the closure of the 1,200-acre base, which is located in the middle of this bustling metropolis.

YOICHI IHA, mayor of ginowan city, Okinawa, Japan (through translator): We had a great expectation for a better proposal for us. However he went back to his previous policy to build a replacement within Okinawa, and it was a disappointment.

SONIA NARANG: The mayor is not alone. A rally this spring against the continued presence of the base drew 90,000 people, almost one-tenth of the island’s 1.1 million population. Residents near Futenma Air Station have long expressed serious concerns about noise and safety problems.

Shop owner Junko Taira used to live next door to Futenma base, but moved away because of the noise.

JUNKO TAIRA, shop owner (through translator): I could see the military planes landing from my house. All the noise scared me. The windows were always shaking. Living in that place was very difficult.

SONIA NARANG: The military says it tries to be responsive.

LT. COL. DOUGLAS POWELL: We are very sensitive to the surrounding community. But we do have obligation to train. We try to minimize the overflight of populated areas. And we, of course, try to minimize our aircraft operations at night.

SONIA NARANG: But many in Henoko, the small fishing village that is the most likely site for the relocation, don’t want the base either.

Eighty-one-year-old Fumiko Shimabukuro and others have held a sit-in at the proposed relocation site every day for the past eight years.

WOMAN (through translator): Why does the American military, for over 60 years, have to keep a lot of bases at a small island like Okinawa? What is the purpose of trying to have more bases here? That, I can never understand.

SONIA NARANG: Okinawans say they are treated unfairly, since the island has 73 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan. Being so far from the mainland and having their own culture, many Okinawans today say Japan’s political leaders view them as second-class citizens. Meanwhile, the rallies to end the U.S. military presence go on.

DOUG LUMMIS: It is a protest against two different governments. It’s a protest simultaneously against the U.S. for having the bases here and against Japan for having most of the bases in Okinawa.

SONIA NARANG: Japanese newspapers are reporting that Prime Minister Hatoyama has indeed agreed to keep the 1996 agreement and move some base operations to Henoko. On an island that has seen plenty of fighting in the past, this decision could lead to a whole new battle for Okinawans.