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On a humid March evening in Okinawa young American men with crewcuts and thick necks sprawl out from the bars and lap-dancing clubs that cluster near US military bases across the island.
“Marijuana — it’s like alcohol, but . . .” reads one T-shirt. A young white man weaves his Honda Saloon at speed through cars heading for a junction. “We all pull clear,” one Japanese driver says. “There are so many accidents.”
The US has slapped tough rules on the 22,000 Marines and 24,000 other personnel on its vast bases on Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, after the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen in 1995 brought tens of thousands of people on to the streets in protest.
Two other alleged rapes in 2008, a rash of robberies and assaults and cases of drink-driving and trespassing brought an apology from Condoleezza Rice, then Secretary of State.
But Washington has been slow to wake up to the mounting local anger about the sheer scale of its operations, which take up a tenth of the island, and to the new Japanese Government’s intention to take a cold, hard look at the 50-year-old security treaty between the two nations.
US forces “still have the mentality of conquerors”, said Kuniko Tamioka, a government expert on Okinawa and member of the lower house of parliament. “They train when they like, never mind the rules, so that, for some people, the morning alarm call is the sound of a helicopter.” Yoshiyuki Uehara, the director of the governor’s secretariat in the Okinawa administration, called it a “vast presence — too many, too much”.
On Monday senior government officials convened to try to find a new site for Futenma, the most controversial airbase, which lies in the centre of Ginowan, one of Okinawa’s busiest cities. In 2004 a helicopter crashed in the grounds of the university; two years later Japan and the US struck a deal to shift the base to Henoko, a tiny fishing village on the pristine east coast.
After the election last August, in which the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) overturned decades of one-party rule, Yukio Hatoyama, the new Prime Minister, scrapped parts of the 2006 pact on the status of US forces, acknowledging local passions and hinting that Futenma could be moved off Okinawa altogether.
Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s secretary-general and the power behind the Hatoyama throne, said this week that the party could lose crucial elections in July if it tried forcibly to rebuild the base anywhere else on the island.
“Even if the Government in Tokyo now decides to relocate the base within Okinawa, people will stop it physically, with boats, with protests,” said Hiromori Maedomari, an editorial writer at Okinawa’s Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper.
Adding to the internal pressures to resolve the issue quickly, Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, arrives in the region on Sunday. He has already warned that if Futenma’s fate is not decided by May relations with Washington could worsen sharply. For Mr Hatoyama, who campaigned with a call for “more equal” relations with the US, decision time is looming.
The American presence on Okinawa dates back to the spring of 1945 when US forces used it as a foothold for invading the mainland. Photographs of the 89-day Battle of Okinawa, the last major Pacific War campaign, show the bays filled with US ships and the explosions of kamikaze pilots. Of the 200,000 people killed, more than half were civilians.
In an episode still vivid to Okinawans, although absent for years from mainland textbooks, the Japanese Army slaughtered many locals, throwing grenades into the caves where they were hiding or forcing them to commit suicide rather than surrender.
Masako Nakazato, 82, one of a famous group of schoolgirl nurses during the battle, echoed the widespread anti-war sentiment on Okinawa. She said: “I don’t think badly of Americans but all military attracts war to itself, and war is disaster.”
The islanders have a strong separate identity and like to remind you that they have been part of Japan for only 400 years. Mr Uehara, of the Okinawa government, said: “If you had taken a poll after the war most Okinawans would have preferred to join the US.”
If American rule was their wish, they got it — more than they wanted. The US occupied Japan until 1952 but refused to hand over Okinawa until 1972. Those extra two decades brought the Korean and Vietnam wars, along with a huge expansion of the bases to more than 30.
The bases, as set out in the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty, support the US commitment to protect Japan, as well as giving the US access to much of the Pacific. Officials argue that the distant US territory of Guam is no substitute as a deterrent to North Korea or to China’s ambitions towards Taiwan.
Futenma is not the biggest base but it is a key cause of tension, embedded as it is in the city of Ginowan. The larger Kadena airbase is only slightly to the north. Military air traffic is constant, even on weekends, and the signs of US expat life are everywhere, from the fleets of yellow school buses to the shops proclaiming: “We buy second-hand American furniture,” to the 30ft (9m) declaration on the side of the United Christian nursery that “Jesus is Lord”.
The Marine Corps handbook for new arrivals, written with some wit, warns those with tattoos that they might be mistaken for yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, if they strip off their shirts. However, given the 20-odd traffic offences a month, it stretches the joke too far with its advice that “unlike the US, people drive on the left side of the road, which requires some getting used to. The slow lane is on the left, and the fast lane is on the right, although there usually isn’t a significant difference between either”.
“It’s a long, long time since the war ended,” said Michiko, 77. “Personally, I like the Americans, and when I graduated from school — which the US paid for, not my parents — I felt the US had helped me, like a rich person helps a poor person. But younger people might not have any relationship with the American people.”
Mr Maedomari agreed that “there is a huge generational gap, and while older people think that Okinawa cannot survive without the US, the younger ones think we can be self-sufficient”.
Apart from the emotions roused by the US presence on Okinawa, the 2006 plan to move Futenma to Henoko and to build two airstrips out into the bay, has also provoked a rare thing — a Japanese environmental campaign in defence of stunning coral reefs and the dugong, a sea mammal akin to the manatee.
Mr Hatoyama, who badly needs to win a majority in the parliament’s upper house in July, has responded with a flurry of conflicting statements. He has led the citizens of Ginowan to assume that Futenma will close while alarming other islanders by keeping alive the possibility of other sites, such as Kadena or Camp Schwab, inland from Henoko.
He has promised the US that Japan is committed to the alliance, but caused concern with his talk of seeking warmer relations with China. US officials dismiss calls for “equality”, noting that Japan, barred by its Constitution from anything but self-defence, is not offering to defend America.
In the coming months they may be able to agree a fudge, probably merging Futenma with another base. But the US has a job to convince Japan that, 65 years after the end of the war, it is not taking its support — or its territory — for granted.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol ... /article7057378.ece