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Friday, Dec. 21, 2012

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Taking a stand: A protester stands by a security blockade set up by police at a gate of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. AP

Okinawa mood getting worse

Crime, Osprey add to anger over pervasive U.S. military bases


OKINAWA, Okinawa Pref. — For nearly 70 years, Okinawa has gotten more than its share of America's military — more jets rattling homes, more crimes rattling nerves.

It was the site of a horrific land battle in World War II. It endured 27 years under U.S. administration and continues to host two-thirds of Japan's U.S. bases.

The 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by two U.S. Marines and a sailor spread rage across the island of about 1.4 million. Now another rape and other crimes allegedly committed by U.S. servicemen have triggered a new wave of anger, though the suspects make up a tiny portion of the 28,000 U.S. service members stationed here.

Some Okinawans get emotional just talking about the stress they feel living in the U.S. military's shadow.

"Everywhere, everyone who has a daughter is feeling this way," said Tomoharu Nakasone, a father of four daughters, choking back tears.

Nakasone, who runs an FM radio station, grew up with the bases and thought he was used to the idea, even forgiving a fatal 2009 hit-and-run by a serviceman as a mistake.

But he was outraged by the latest rape — in a parking lot in October — and petrified by a bizarre incident weeks later in which a 13-year-old boy was beaten in his own home while watching TV, allegedly by a U.S. airman.

"Entering someone's home is simply not normal. It is the lowest of human behavior," he said.

There has always been a degree of strain between Okinawans and U.S. service members, but it has grown more pronounced in recent months, not only because of crime but because of safety concerns surrounding the MV-22 Osprey, the hybrid aircraft with tilting rotors recently brought to the prefecture.

The U.S. service members, mostly marines and air force personnel, are stationed in Okinawa under a bilateral alliance that is the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy.

U.S. Ambassador John Roos and the commander of the U.S. forces in Japan have apologized for the crimes, promised to cooperate with the Japanese police investigations and increased restrictions on the forces.

"We take the relationship with Japan very serious," U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Lt. Col. David Honchul said. "That's why these actions have all taken place because we are trying to show the citizens of Japan that we take this serious, and we are going to address this. And it's also telling our own service members that we take this very seriously."

After the October rape, an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew was set for all military personnel in Japan.

The rules were tightened further after a drunken driving accident off base last month. Now U.S. forces in Okinawa are barred from buying or consuming alcohol off base. Even on base, sales of alcohol stop from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Despite the military's efforts, many Okinawans appear fed up with American service members.

"They are being trained to kill for war. They can't look at a person as a human being," said Hiyori Mekaru, a 40-year-old nurse who has lived all her life in Okinawa. "I am angry. I don't want this kind of future, where we must have our children grow up, learning the names of military planes."

Ironically, the U.S. military's influence over Okinawans is evident even in their protests over the bases. They shout at passing cars, "Get out of here!" and "We hate you!" in good vernacular English that is unusual for most Japanese but typical for Okinawans. During one recent rally protesters closed by singing "We Shall Overcome."

Okinawans got their hopes up about getting rid of the bases in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan won control from the conservatives that have ruled the country almost incessantly since the end of World War II.

The first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, promised the rest of Japan would share in the burden of hosting American bases. But almost as soon as he made his promise, he stepped down in disgrace.

The Okinawa bases had faded to a nonissue by the time of the general election last Sunday, which was dominated by concerns about economic malaise and the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Japan has had one prime minister after another over the past several years, making any negotiations difficult.

And so the plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, promised after the 1995 rape, to coastal and less densely populated Henoko on another part of Okinawa has gone nowhere.

Yoshikazu Tamaki, a member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, said keeping the bases on an island that makes up less than 0.5 percent of Japan's territory is "systematic discrimination."

He said he is disgusted by how Okinawa has been treated by its own government, and suggested that officials in Washington are more sympathetic about Okinawa's plight than those in Tokyo.

"These are young soldiers here, maybe 18, maybe 20," he said. "They are waging war every day. They are coming to Okinawa as a military base. The way we feel and the way they feel will never meet."

Japan must weigh Okinawans' complaints against its relationship with the U.S. military, which it values all the more as Tokyo quarrels with China over the Senkaku Islands and watches nuclear-armed North Korea test its missile technology, most recently with a rocket launch last week.

Okinawans are angry that Japan approved the Osprey deployment, which began in October, though the government has asked for and received additional assurances of the aircraft's safety.

Washington says the Osprey is safe and is needed to ensure regional security. Okinawans are concerned about two Osprey crashes earlier this year, in Florida and Morocco, and because Futenma, where the aircraft make nearly daily test flights, is smack in the middle of the crowded residential area of Ginowan.

Honchul said the Osprey is "a very safe and capable aircraft" that has operated on Okinawa Island without incident. Investigations into the two crashes did not find fault with the aircraft, he said.

Okinawans, however, remember how a U.S. helicopter dropped eight years ago into Okinawa International University's campus, next to Futenma. Crewmen were hurt.

Over the last several months, dozens of people have been gathering daily at a Futenma gate to protest the Osprey. Kazunobu Akamine, who makes and delivers lunches for a living, was among the most boisterous protesters.

He said his son was nearly killed in the 2004 helicopter crash; he had gone to the university to pick up empty lunch boxes. Talking as if World War II were yesterday, he said his grandfather was fatally shot in the head while hiding in the mountains from U.S. soldiers.

Akamine also talked about how proud he was of his father, who supported his family by checking cargo on the U.S. base, but also secretly participated in antibase rallies.

"There are so many people like that in Okinawa," Akamine said.

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