- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

TOKYO — With an eye to the ongoing U.S. military re- configuration, President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi agreed Tuesday in New York to try to reduce the U.S. military presence in Japan, especially on Okinawa.

The two leaders discussed the issue less than six weeks after the Aug. 13 crash of a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter on a university campus in Ginowan City adjacent to Futenma U.S. Marine Corps Air Station.

The CH-53 military transport helicopter crashed and burst into flames, injuring the three crew members aboard and damaging a building at Okinawa International University, which was fortunately empty on a sunny Friday afternoon in August.

Residents were angered not only by the crash, but by the attitude of American soldiers and Japanese government leaders. The U.S. military refused to let local police enter the crash site and also rejected Japanese demands to participate in the investigation.

Moreover, although Okinawa prefectural officials asked for a meeting to discuss the accident, Mr. Koizumi did not meet Gov. Keiichi Inamine until Aug. 25 — two days after the prime minister returned to work from a two-week break.

“If a helicopter had crashed on a university campus in Tokyo, the prime minister wouldn’t have said: ‘I’m in the middle of a summer vacation,’ would he?” asked peace activist Fumiko Nakamura, 91.

Frustrated, about 30,000 people gathered Sept. 12 for the biggest anti-base rally in nine years.

Tokushin Yamauchi, a director of Yamauchi Pacifist Constitution and Local Issues Research Institute, a long-time mayor of Yomitan Village on Okinawa, said that although Mr. Koizumi emphasized repeatedly that U.S.-Japan relations are very important, he failed to respond to the accident promptly.

“The next time Prime Minister Koizumi comes to Okinawa for an official event, he should get a cold shoulder from every resident” of the island, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, said Mr. Yamauchi.

Many Okinawans said they did not expect the two national leaders to achieve anything. In fact, Mrs. Nakamura, a former teacher, pointed to the same day’s news report that Japan’s Defense Agency plans to augment the size of its ground forces in Okinawa by about 850 troops, to 2,300, to beef up the defense of the prefecture’s remote southwestern islands.

“Okinawa used to be a bulwark of the Imperial Japanese Empire. They are now trying to make Okinawa a bulwark of Japan and the United States,” Mrs. Nakamura said angrily.

Okinawa, main island of the Ryukyu chain, formerly a tropical kingdom paying tribute to China’s emperors, has had a turbulent modern history.

Claimed by Japan in the 1870s, it was captured by the United States in the spring of 1945 after the bloodiest land battles of World War II in the Pacific, which claimed more than 200,000 lives, including a fourth of the island’s population. The United States turned Okinawa island into a military bastion after Mao Tse-tung gained control of mainland China for the Communists in 1949 and the Korean War began in 1950.

Its military importance lies in the island’s proximity by air to Japan, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

In May 1972, 20 years after the U.S. military occupation ended in most parts of Japan, Okinawa reverted to Japan, but friction between the population and the American presence continues. A fifth of Okinawa’s main island is still reserved for use by the U.S. military, whose young men are far from home.

In 1995, the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen infuriated islanders. The mass demonstrations prompted the United States and Japan to promise to make the military presence less oppressive. The highlight of their 1996 pledge was to close Futenma U.S. Marine Air Station within five to seven years, but no satisfactory alternate facility has been found.

Futenma air station is located in the middle of Ginowan, a city of 88,000 people in central Okinawa. The base occupies a fourth of the city and is surrounded by schools and residential areas. To avoid encroaching on the base, municipal roads, water and sewerage systems have to go around it. Residents of the city say this is the greatest obstacle to the region’s economic development and town planning.

In mid-July, a month before the crash, Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha made a 10-day trip to Washington and Hawaii, meeting government officials and scholars to call for an early return of the Futenma Marine Air Station and address the dangers his city faces.

In a visit to The Washington Times July 12, Mr. Iha said: “The U.S. government should reduce the burden on the people” of Ginowan by returning Futenma U.S. Marine Air Station, which occupies its center, to Japan.

“The dangerous situation in Ginowan is unacceptable,” Mr. Iha said. The United States agreed on Dec. 2, 1996, after negotiations between Japan and the Clinton administration, to relocate the airfield in five to seven years, but those target dates have come and gone. Mr. Iha said that if work on constructing a replacement facility in Okinawa began immediately, it would take 16 years to complete.

Since the 1996 agreement, annual training flights at Futenma have increased by half, he added. At a San Francisco meeting of Japanese and American officials on July 15, Mr. Iha said he and the people of Okinawa do not want a substitute U.S. airfield built on their island.

The Aug. 13 crash has again altered the life and concerns of Ginowan’s residents, said Kiyoshi Nakamura, who was born and grew up in the city.

“Although it was a miracle no one was injured, some people can’t sleep well and others become fearful at the sound of police or ambulance sirens,” he said. “Children now realize that some helicopters do crash.”

The crash prompted more islanders to call for immediate closure of the Futenma air station, but it will take another 13 to 15 years to relocate the facility to a planned floating offshore airfield near Nago on the east coast of the island.

The problem was created by political blunders, said Tadae Takubo, a professor of international relations at Kyorin University in Tokyo.

“Politicians in Tokyo and Okinawa complicated the matter,” he said, “and the Americans are saying, ‘Hurry up!’ ”

According to a poll two weeks ago by the national daily Asahi Shimbun and the Okinawa Times, the island’s main paper, 81 percent of Okinawans surveyed oppose the plan to relocate the functions of Futenma air station to a floating airfield, and only 10 percent favor it. This is a dramatic change from a December 1999 poll by the two papers in which 45 percent were against the plan and 32 percent were in favor.

Some islanders prefer to unify the Marine air station’s functions with Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force facility in Asia, also located in central Okinawa, but some U.S. officials reportedly suggest they be relocated to Shimoji Island near Taiwan, where the airport runway is 1.9 miles long.

However, the Koizumi government in Tokyo and Mr. Inamine say they want to go ahead with the floating airfield off Nago.

In a 1997 referendum, Nago residents voted against construction of an offshore runway. But the city of 56,000, lured by a development package worth around $1 billion, later decided to accept it.

Meanwhile, the plan has come under attack from environmentalists, scholars and nongovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Some of these parties have sued Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in San Francisco’s U.S. District Court to block the Nago plan.

Critics contend the floating-airport project could end up costing Japanese taxpayers more than $9.5 billion, but benefit only some politicians and politically connected contractors.

Mrs. Nakamura, who grew up in the region early last century, got into a boat to take a look around the sea area of the planned offshore military airfield.

“The sea was so beautiful that I found myself shouting: President Bush, Mr. Koizumi, come here to see this beautiful sea. You can’t build a base here to train people to kill people,’ ” she said.

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