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A base draws ire - so US looks to sea

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The source of all life force, traditional Okinawan belief holds, is "Nirai Kanai" - a world far out in the sea where the gods reside. These spirits send blessings from the mythical place surrounded by brilliant blue waters.

This time, though, the gods of Nirai Kanai might be the ones in need of help. After decades of a deeply resented American and Japanese military presence on land, a new threat has come to the sea itself. Plans are in place for a sea-based airport, the first of its kind, for the United States Marines. Critics say it could devastate a sensitive coral reef off the coast of Henoko, a village near Nago City, Japan.

Opponents, including environmental groups from both sides of the Pacific, call the air station an ecologically catastrophe on a sea replete with irreplaceable biodiversity. But Okinawa is Japan's poorest prefecture, and a large minority near Henoko appears to support the proposed base in hopes of an economic boost.

Although the struggle over the Marine base in Okinawa sounds typical - US bases generate local protests around the world - it runs deeper and involves an array of competing interests not only internationally but within Japan itself. For one thing, the opposition is more cultural than political, more antiwar than anti-American. For another, the US military is actually trying to reduce its community footprint. But for the US to find the right balance - in one of the most strategic outposts in East Asia - will prove tricky, analysts say, especially if it encroaches on one of the world's most diverse marine environments.

"Villages like Henoko still have a somewhat traditional lifestyle, and within that lifestyle, nature has an important place," says Jonathan Taylor of California State University in Fullerton, who is studying Okinawan social movements. "Even if they never swim in the ocean, just knowing that the ocean is clean is an important thing. [The new base] is going to disrupt that."

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