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Okinawans rally against keeping Futenma

Date Posted: 2010-04-29

Tens of thousands of Okinawans turned out in Yomitan Sunday, venting anger and frustration at the Japanese government for its indecisiveness on how to relocate Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from densely populated Ginowan City.

Okinawa’s governor, along with representatives of the island prefecture’s 41 municipalities, joined as many as 90,000 demonstrators at a Yomitan Park. Most were staunchly opposed to relocating Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture, while some handed out pamphlets and presented a pro-U.S. military stance. The exact number of participants was deemed questionable, with organizers claiming the high number, while others—pointing out the limited capacity of the park—pegged the number at fewer than 50,000.

The attacks were focused on Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and his failure to come up with any substantive plan for selecting a replacement site for Futenma. Governor Hirokazu Nakaima challenged Hatoyama, pointing out “this is not a problem that only concerns Okinawans. The safety of each Japanese individual is connected to Okinawa.” Hatoyama, in his political campaigning last summer, promised to remove Futenma from Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts half of the 50,000 American service personnel, and 75% of the land used by U.S. military facilities in Japan.

A 2006 Japan-U.S. pact called for moving Futenma to the Henoko District of Nago City in northern Okinawa, but Hatoyama promised to dump that plan in favor of a new approach. The Prime Minister’s administration has surfaced several ideas, including moving the base to Tokunoshima in Kagoshima Prefecture, and creating an artificial island near White Beach and the Katsuren Peninsula on the island’s east side for use by the U.S. military and the Japanese Air Self Defense Force now at Naha International Airport. “Some cabinet ministers have indicated their tolerance for the possibility of Futenma remaining as it is, but I say absolutely no to that,” Nakaima assured rally-goers.

Nakaima has conditionally agreed to have Futenma remain on Okinawan soil, and even through the Sunday rally he didn’t back off, noting it would be “extremely difficult” to implement the Futenma plan as it is, but says it’s still a consideration. “My opinion is still the same as before,” he said after the speech and rally. “I will approve the transfer of Futenma to Camp Schwab, but with the condition of transfer that the runway be moved farther from shore.”

Ginowan City’s fiery anti-base mayor, Iha, said Okinawans aren’t demanding the removal of all U.S. bases from Okinawa, but “if, however, the U.S. government insists on keeping Futenma operations, we must start calling for removal of the entire presence of the military from Okinawa.” Nago City’s mayor, Susumu Inamine, hammered hard at the ruling Japanese party, the Democratic Party of Japan, for offering contradictory policies on Futenma. Inamine, who was elected on a promise to rid his city of military bases, said the plan for moving Futenma to Nago was done in “such an erratic and unscrupulous manner that ridicules Okinawans, and we can never forgive that.”

Toshio Shimabukuro, Uruma City’s Mayor, joined in rejecting the idea of moving heliport functions from Futenma to an island proposed for construction off the Katsuren Peninsula. He complained such a plan would realign his community “into a major military site.”

Not all demonstrators were against the military bases. Masakazu Isayama, one of the representatives of the Okinawa Chapter of the Happiness Realization Party, circulated through the crowd handing out pro-military leaflets. “We want people of Okinawa to know the importance of the presence of the U.S. military here,” he said, adding, “Chinese warships recently came close to Okinawan waters. If the Marine Corps leaves, Okinawa will be open to a real threat from China.” Ryuji Kawamitsu agrees. “It’s not that simple,” the 36-year-old says, adding, “I do not have any resentment to military bases.” He pointed out most Americans living outside bases have proven themselves good neighbors, and says “besides, my grandmother always tells me how Americans were kinder to Okinawans than our Japanese soldiers.”

Sunday’s rally was the first for members of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party to join in. The LDP was the ruling party when the agreement on Futenma was signed in May 2006. Traffic was snarled for hours and kilometers, as Highway 58 looked more like a parking lot than a roadway. Buses transporting some demonstrators never even made it to Yomitan because of the traffic jams. The crowd mood was festive in Yomitan, with many turning out wearing yellow as a sign of protest against the bases.

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