Tens of thousands of people yesterday protested against the presence of US military bases in Okinawa, many wearing black to mourn the rape and killing of a local woman, a case in which a US contractor is a suspect.
The rally called for a review of the US-Japanese security agreement, which burdens Okinawa with hosting the bulk of US troops in Japan.
Also contentious is a plan to relocate a US Marine Corps air station to a less-populated part of the island. The relocation plan developed after public anger erupted in 1995 over the rape of a girl by three US servicemen.
The killing of the local woman, who had been missing for several weeks when her body was found last month, set off outrage in Okinawa, where tensions periodically run high over crime linked to US troops.
The contractor, a former US Marine, was arrested on May 19 on suspicion of abandoning the woman’s body, but has not yet been charged with her murder.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga told the crowd at the rally in Okinawa’s capital, Naha, that he wanted to apologize to the woman for failing to protect her, even after what happened in 1995.
“We had pledged never to repeat such an incident,” he said. “I couldn’t change the political system to prevent that. That is my utmost regret as a politician and as governor of Okinawa.”
About 65,000 people attended the rally, according to Kyodo News agency.
Many people held signs demanding that the marines leave and that the overall military presence in Okinawa be scaled back.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government supports the security agreement with the US and wants Japan to take on a bigger military role on the international stage.
However, those at the rally said they wanted a more peace-oriented Japan.
“This is not how we want the country to be,” university student Jinshiro Motoyama said. “We want the bases gone.”
A rally was also held in front of Abe’s residence in Tokyo, drawing about 10,000 people, timed to coincide with and show support for the Okinawa rally.
The US military has periodically tried to ease tensions in Okinawa and says the crime rate among its ranks is lower than among the general public.
Earlier this month, the US Navy imposed a drinking ban after a US sailor was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in Okinawa, driving the wrong way on a freeway and crashing into two vehicles, injuring two people. The restriction was recently eased.
Last month, Lieutenant General Lawrence Nicholson, the commanding officer of US Marines in Japan, stressed the importance of the bilateral alliance.
“Please do not allow this terrible act of violence to drive a wedge between our two communities,” he said on Okinawa, referring to the woman’s death. “There may be issues we differ on, but we must continue to talk. Let’s keep those lines of communication open.”
However, Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian history at Temple University in Tokyo, said resentment about the bases would likely continue in Okinawa, adding that he believes the base relocation project might be delayed.
“I think they just feel so frustrated,” he said of residents of Okinawa. “These protests are not just going to go away.”
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