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Ishigaki residents react angrily to U.S. Navy visit

Date Posted: 2009-04-09

Ishigaki shopkeepers and restaurants were looking forward to visits by sailors from two U.S. Navy minesweepers, but angry protests from about 100 local residents and union members thwarted the bulk of on-shore visits.

Despite objections from Okinawa’s governor and Ishigaki’s mayor, including an appeal to U.S. President Barack Obama to stop the port visit last weekend, the USS Patriot and USS Guardian entered the Port of Ishigaki Island Friday. U.S. Consul General Kevin Maher was pier side when the two U.S. Navy ships arrived, coordinating dialogue between local officials and the Navy, and to welcome the ships.

Ishigaki Mayor Nagateru Ohama appeared at a rally Friday, reiterating his opinion “Ishigaki Port is a civilian port and is not a place for calls by U.S. warships.” As he spoke, protesters, including labor union members, were waving banners and chanting “U.S. warships, go away!” Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, issued a statement declaring the port should be strictly for commercial use unless there was an emergency.

Friday’s rally stretched nearly nine hours before protester numbers dwindled and the port gates were opened about 5 p.m. Mayor Ohama rejected the U.S. Government’s position that the port visits are routine, and in line with Japan-U.S. agreements. A banner declaring ‘No Warships, No American Military’ was draped across a fence outside the port on Friday, but had disappeared on Saturday. The ladies association that made the banner reported the loss to police, who investigated and studied security camera video that showed two “American looking guys” coming to the fence, climbing it, then taking away the banner.

The two Sasebo-based minesweepers are part of the U.S. 7th Fleet. The visit to the Ishigaki Island, had been planned for months. It was the second time a U.S. Navy ship visited a civilian port in Okinawa since Okinawa Prefecture’s reversion to Japanese control in 1972. Two vessels called at Yonaguni Island in 2007.

The Friday protests kept sailors aboard ship, with exception of only a few groups who left the port to perform community service projects. Crews of the USS Patriot and USS Guardian were restricted to the port area, where they played ball, the guitar, and stayed quiet. At least 128 sailors had been expecting shore liberty in Ishigaki.

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