Nearly 100,000 demonstrators attended a rally on Okinawa yesterday to demonstrate against a US air base in a row that is dominating Japan’s national politics and souring its ties with Washington.
Okinawan Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, the speaker of the Okinawa assembly and most of the mayors of the Okinawa prefecture’s 41 towns joined the huge protest near Kadena Air Base, the Asia-Pacific region’s largest US military facility.
Under a blazing sun at an athletics ground on the subtropical island, protesters applauded and whistled as speakers addressed them from a podium.
Demonstrators held yellow banners with messages protesting against the US military presence, such as: “No Base!” or “US bases leave Okinawa!”
The row centers on US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which under a 2006 pact with Washington was to be moved from the crowded city of Ginowan to the quieter coastal Henoko area of Okinawa.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose party won September’s general election by a landslide, has said he will review the 2006 deal and move Futenma off Okinawa island, but a search for alternative locations has provoked more local protests.
“We want Prime Minister Hatoyama to keep to his pledge, especially on the [relocation] of the Futenma air base,” Nakaima said to loud applause at yesterday’s rally.
“Okinawa has suffered the overwhelmingly heavy burden of US bases since the end of the war” in 1945, he said. “Today, there are few traces of the war in Okinawa, but US bases still remain in front of us. This is so unfair.”
Many of the islanders resent the heavy US military presence on Okinawa, a legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II, and complain of noise, pollution and friction with US soldiers.
The issue of relocating US bases threatens Hatoyama’s political future, with the prime minister caught between Washington and his left-leaning political allies in the dispute.
“Prime Minister Hatoyama has raised strong hopes among Okinawans,” said Zenshin Takamine, the Okinawa assembly’s speaker, demanding that Hatoyama keep to his promise.
“Okinawans cannot bear the burden of US bases anymore,” he said. “With the governor’s participation in this rally, Okinawa’s voice is united. We say ‘no’ to Futenma base.”
Hatoyama has set himself a deadline of late next month to resolve the issue but, since he came to power in September, the US has not dropped its insistence that Tokyo stick to the original relocation plan.
On Friday, under questioning from a conservative lawmaker, Hatoyama staked his job on finding a solution by the time his deadline expires.
Ahead of crucial upper house elections due in July, Hatoyama has seen his approval ratings dive as criticism of his dithering on the issue has grown.
The US established the Futenma base in 1945 after it occupied Okinawa following some of World War II’s bloodiest battles.
It did not return Okinawa to Japan until 1972 and still operates more than 30 military facilities on the island, strategically located near China, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.
Under the 2006 agreement, Futenma facilities will be moved to reclaimed land around Camp Schwab in Henoko and about 8,000 Marines will move to the US territory of Guam.
More than 70 percent of US military facilities in Japan — along with more than half of the 47,000 US troops stationed there — are located in Okinawa.