- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

GINOWAN, Japan — From his food stall in a street crammed with shops, Tadashi Oya can always see U.S. military helicopters buzzing overhead. They are usually just a nuisance.

But two years ago, one chopper crashed into the university across the street.

“I remember that well,” Mr. Oya said. “I was a student there at the time.”

Few U.S. military bases in the world have more neighbors right outside their fences than Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, adjoining Ginowan, a bustling city of 85,000 on Okinawa. Because of the noise and dangers, just about everyone — including American servicemen — is eager to see the base relocated.

After 10 years of negotiations, the United States and Japan have announced a plan to move the airstrip’s operations to a more remote part of Okinawa and shift 8,000 of the 15,000 Marines on the island to Guam.

But many Okinawans are not satisfied. They want the air station’s operations moved off the island completely and are frustrated that the relocation won’t happen until 2014.

The United States and Japan agreed to move the base in 1996 after three U.S. servicemen were convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl, provoking huge protests. The base was supposed to be moved within seven years, but disputes over costs and a suitable replacement site stalled the relocation.

After Japan’s Cabinet approved the plan last month, Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said he was “deeply disappointed,” complaining that his government had not been sufficiently consulted and insisting that Futenma’s operations be transferred off the island entirely.

The Marines and officials in Tokyo say the relocation is a major step toward easing the burden on Okinawa, which was devastated in World War II and was under U.S. jurisdiction until 1972. The island has since been home to roughly half the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, and hosts Kadena Air Base, the U.S. Air Force’s largest outpost in Asia.

“This is a real milestone,” Lt. Gen. Joseph Weber, who as commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force is the top Marine on Okinawa, told reporters last week. “There is a realization that we must do something to reduce the burden.”

The proposed changes on Okinawa are part of the most sweeping realignment of U.S. troops in Japan in decades. In the years ahead, the United States also will deploy a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to a port just south of Tokyo, and Japan — Washington’s key ally in Asia — will assume a more prominent role in regional security.

The two sides agreed to move Futenma’s operations to two new runways to be built at Camp Schwab, a Marine base in more sparsely populated northern Okinawa. Critics note that although Schwab is relatively remote, nearby towns will still contend with noise and fear of crashes.

“There is a lot to be worked out,” Gen. Weber said. “But there is a renewed commitment and a sense of urgency in both governments at the highest level to get these details worked out.”

But for many people in Okinawa, strategically close to Taiwan and China and about 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo, Futenma has become a symbol of delayed promises.

Okinawans are not anti-American, but many distrust military organizations and the government in Tokyo, which used their island as a buffer in the closing months of World War II, turning it into a bloody battleground.

In January this year, tensions rose over the robbery and killing of a Japanese woman by a U.S. sailor in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo.

In March, 30,000 people protested in Ginowan to demand the Futenma base be moved outside Japan. Addressing the crowd, Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha called Futenma “the world’s most dangerous base.”

Officials stress that crime by U.S. service personnel in Japan has fallen. Military leaders have imposed curfews and drinking regulations in Okinawa.

But public opinion is still harsh. Said Kyoko Yoza, 18, a student at Okinawa International University, where the U.S. helicopter crashed in 2004: “What we really want is for all of them to leave.”

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