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Okinawans fed up with U.S. presence

By Yuri Kageyama

Associated Press


OKINAWA, Japan » For nearly 70 years, Okinawa has gotten more than its share of America's military — more jets rattling homes, more crimes rattling nerves.

It's the only Japanese island invaded by U.S. land forces during World War II. It endured 27 years under U.S. administration, and it continues to host two-thirds of Japan's U.S. bases.

The 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor spread rage across the island of about 1.4 million. Now another rape and other crimes allegedly by U.S. servicemen have triggered a new wave of anger.

Some Okinawans get emotional just talking about the stress they feel living in the U.S. military's shadow.

"Everywhere, everyone who has a daughter is feeling this way," said Tomo­haru Naka­sone, a father of four daughters, choking back tears.

Nakasone, who runs an FM radio station, grew up with the bases and thought he was used to the idea, even forgiving a fatal 2009 hit-and-run by a serviceman as a mistake. But he was outraged by the latest rape — in a parking lot in October — and petrified by a bizarre incident weeks later in which a 13-year-old boy was beaten in his own home while watching TV, allegedly by a U.S. airman.

"Entering someone's home is simply not normal. It is the lowest of human behavior," he said.

There has always been a degree of strain between Okinawans and the 28,000 U.S. troops here, but it has grown more pronounced, not only because of crime, but because of safety concerns surrounding the MV-22 Osprey, a U.S. hybrid aircraft with tilting rotors recently brought to the island.

U.S. Ambassador John Roos and the commander of the U.S. forces in Japan have apologized for the crimes, promised to cooperate with the Japa­nese police investigations and increased restrictions on troops.

"We take the relationship with Japan very serious," U.S. Forces Japan spokes­man Lt. Col. David Honchul said. "That's why these actions have all taken place, because we are trying to show the citizens of Japan that we take this serious and we are going to address this."

After the October rape, an 11 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew was set for all military personnel in Japan.

The rules were tightened further after a drunken-driving accident off base last month. Now U.S. troops in Okinawa are barred from buying or consuming alcohol off base. Even on base, sales of alcohol stop from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Despite the military's efforts, many Okinawans sound fed up with American troops.

"They are being trained to kill for war. They can't look at a person as a human being," said Hi­yori Mekaru, a 40-year-old nurse. "I am angry. I don't want this kind of future, where we must have our children grow up learning the names of military planes."

The U.S. military's influence over Okinawans is evident even in their protests. They shout at passing cars, "Get out of here!" and "We hate you!" in good vernacular English that is unusual for most Japa­nese but typical for Okinawans. During one recent rally protesters closed by singing "We Shall Overcome."

Okinawans got their hopes up about getting rid of the bases in 2009, when the Demo­cratic Party of Japan seized control from the conservatives that have ruled the country almost incessantly since the end of World War II.

The prime minister at the time, Yukio Hato­yama, promised that the rest of Japan would share in the burden of hosting American bases. But almost as soon as he made his promise, he was kicked out of office.

The Okinawan bases have faded to a non-issue in Sunday's nationwide parliamentary elections, which are dominated by concerns about the country's nuclear disaster and economic malaise. Japan has had one prime minister after another over the past several years, making any negotiations difficult.

And so the plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, promised after the 1995 rape, to coastal and less densely populated Henoko on another part of Okinawa has gone nowhere.

Yoshikazu Tamaki, an Okinawan prefectural (state) legislator, said keeping the bases on an island that makes up less than 0.5 percent of Japan's territory is "systematic discrimination."

He said he is disgusted by how Okinawa has been treated by its own government, and suggested that officials in Washington are more sympathetic about Okinawa's plight than those in Tokyo.

"These are young soldiers here, maybe 18, maybe 20," he said. "They are waging war every day. They are coming to Okinawa as a military base. The way we feel and the way they feel will never meet."

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