- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

NAGO, Japan — Sixty years ago today, the subtropical island of Okinawa became one of the last killing fields of World War II as American troops fought their way ashore after a naval bombardment. Now, say residents and environmentalists, the United States and Japan are assaulting its emerald-green sea.

The 1945 Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest of World War II, killing more than 200,000 people, including 12,520 Americans. But after the war, the U.S. military presence continued here.

American bases on Okinawa’s main island take up 20 percent of its area. Although this forward deployment has played a key role in U.S. military strategy in East Asia, to the Japanese islanders it means crowding, government subsidies, an oppressive burden, and occasional accidents and crimes involving the U.S. garrison.

Having repeatedly promised to reduce this burden, the United States and Japan are trying to construct a big offshore floating military base.

“The U.S. and Japan are acting as if Okinawa were a deserted island — as if no one lives here,” said Etsuko Urashima, a writer who has lived in the region for 15 years. “It seems Americans still have an occupation mentality, since the land was captured at the price of their blood.”

Washington and Tokyo have agreed to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located amid crowded residential areas of central Okinawa, with an offshore airfield off Nago, in northern Okinawa. The plan has provoked criticism from islanders near the proposed site, anti-base activists and international environmental groups. The environmentalists say the construction will destroy coral reefs and sea-grass beds and threaten the survival of rare species, including dugongs — large, gentle mammals that spend their entire lives in the sea.

Seeking to prevent this, U.S. and Japanese environmental groups and some Okinawans sued Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in a U.S. court in September 2003.

In its ongoing military reconfiguration, the Pentagon “tends to lack environmental concern and ignores the voices of local residents,” said Junichi Sato, a member of Greenpeace Japan, who says Americans make up 40 percent of those who joined the group’s “cyber action” to oppose construction of the offshore base.

The project also could end up costing Japanese taxpayers more than $9.5 billion but benefit only some politicians and politically connected contractors, critics contend.

In August, a U.S. military helicopter crashed into a building at the Okinawa International University near the Futenma base. Many had long warned of dangerous situations in the area. Mr. Rumsfeld reportedly was shocked to see the congested location from the air.

“I believe the accident had a significant impact on public opinion,” said Masao Kishimoto, president of the Okinawa Times, the island’s major paper.

In 1996, the United States and Japan promised to close the air station within five to seven years, on the condition that an alternate facility be found on the island. They proposed that it be built offshore east of Nago.

Then, more U.S. and Japanese officials started calling for the review of the plan because it would take about 15 years to complete the project. Because of the growing opposition, Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto and Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine emphasize it would be best if the Futenma air station were relocated outside Okinawa.

“To make it more rational and less costly, the functions of Futenma should be shifted to other bases,” said Mikio Shimoji, a former member of the House of Representatives from Okinawa, who predicted a big move would be made next month.

Some also have suggested that the air station be under the control of the Japan Self-Defense Forces and that the United States could use the facility during emergencies.

In late February, about 1,800 local supporters of the government’s plan for Okinawa held a pep rally. Because Tokyo had promised to pump a large amount of money into Okinawa, they had supported the plan. But some now doubt whether the measures really benefited residents.

“Large corporations from the mainland seem to have reaped the benefit,” said Masaki Kamiyama, a councilor in Nago and president of a local fishery association. The measures “didn’t make the city’s contractors and service sector flourish.”

As was the case 60 years ago. “I feel Okinawa is still sacrificed for the mainland,” Mr. Kamiyama said. Then, Okinawa and its people were sacrificed with the Japanese military garrison to protect Japan’s home islands.

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