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Okinawans rev up against US base

Activist voices grow to say they can't be bought into accepting arelocated military.

Like 150 other activists gathered in Nago's town hall in Okinawa prefecture on a recent evening, Atsuko Koki repeats two messages: Don't let another US base be built on Okinawa. And, don't let President Clinton come here.

In 1997, Nago voters rejected a government plan to build a new US military facility here to replace one being closed about 25 miles away.

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And in April, Japan announced that Nago will help host the 2000 economic summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations. Anti-base activists say the two events are connected.

"It's another carrot and stick policy of the government," Ms. Koki says.

While hosting a summit could be a boon to this small island city of 55,500, citizens like Koki suspect the government once again wants to push the city to accept a military base in exchange for the summit and "economic development funds."

Anti-base activists here stress that they don't need the summit, money, and a base. They just want to get on with their lives.

The US and Japan "ridicule Nago citizens," Koki argues. "They treat us like animals in the cage and think if they feed us, we will shut up."

Tokyo was trying in 1997 to sell the citizens of Nago on its plan to construct a gigantic sea-based facility, which would replace the Marines' Futenma Air Station. The US agreed in 1996 to close Futenma if Japan provided the Marines with an alternative facility. The decision came after the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen. After then-Gov. Masahide Ota, a staunch critic of the US military presence on the island, announced his opposition in February 1998, Tokyo froze much-needed economic assistance to Okinawa.

Mr. Clinton has urged Tokyo to settle the issue before he attends the Okinawa summit in July. But activists in Nago say he shouldn't bother coming.

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Anti-base movements are gradually gaining strength as some Okinawa officials hint Nago's Henoko district, on the east side of the city, is still likely to be one of the proposed sites for a replacement base for Futenma.

In Ginowan, where the Futenma Air Station is located, more than 800 people gathered last week for an inaugural rally to form an island-wide group to protest any relocation of military bases within Okinawa.

Incentives for a struggling economy

During his gubernatorial election campaign, Gov. Keiichi Inamine, who has been supported by conservative business groups and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, also promised to build an airport in northern Okinawa for both the US military and civilian use. His victory in November against Mr. Ota has appeared to facilitate Futenma relocation plans. After Mr. Inamine's election, Tokyo promised to pour more money into the island if the governor keeps a flexible stance on US military base issues.

"It's money, money, money, all about money," says Kiyoko Miyagi, a local activist in the Henoko district of Nago. "Everyone used to be against the US military presence. But the government is trying to bait with money."

Money, however, is what people in Nago's Henoko community need in order to resuscitate the "dead" town, says Katsuo Shimabukuro, a leader of a local business group. "I am telling our folks over and over again that 'we have to build up economic sufficiency while getting funds from the government,' " he says.

Okinawa's unemployment rate increased to 8.9 percent in July, more than 4 percent higher than the current national average. During the Vietnam War, the strong US dollar and thousands of American soldiers helped boom Henoko's economy. The district's living standard at that time was one of the highest in Okinawa. "The streets were so inundated with American soldiers that there was no space to plant a foot on," recalls Mr. Shimabukuro.

Americans have been in Okinawa since Japan's only ground battle of World War II occurred here, which killed more than 140,000 Okinawans. Although the US occupation of the mainland ended in 1952, it continued on the island until 1972.

Okinawa key to alliance

Okinawa constitutes 0.6 percent of Japan's total land mass but is home to 75 percent of the US military installations in Japan. And many of the bases like Futenma are located in densely populated central Okinawa.

Okinawans have long asked why their tiny island has to shoulder such a heavy burden.

"Okinawa is the vital element of our alliance with Japan and key to our presence in the region," Thomas Foley reminded Okinawans three weeks ago. The US ambassador to Japan, who visited Naha, the island's capital, added, "We are pleased and encouraged by recent signs of progress on Futenma's relocation."

While Washington and Tokyo have pushed for relocation within Okinawa, some experts question the plan.

The relocation of bases or the reduction of the number of forces, whether it's within Okinawa or within the mainland, is "not feasible," says Sheila Smith, assistant professor of international relations at Boston University, who lived on the island this year to research local movements and their impact on national politics. "I don't think trying to build a new military base is a wise policy for the US-Japan alliance in the long run ... given the impact building a new base will have on the island."

Governor Inamine said the process of selecting a relocation site of Futenma has entered its final phase. Analysts say once a proposed site is disclosed, the widespread opposition is likely to surge.

"Okinawans know what a base brings to their community directly or indirectly. We've lived with them for 54 years," says Hideo Kinjo, vice chairman of the editorial committee of the Okinawa Times newspaper. "I can hear the roar of the tide [of opposition]."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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