G I N O W A N, Okinawa, Japan, July 15, 2000 -- Thousands of residents
of Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa held their biggest
rally in years today against the presence of huge U.S.
military bases, just days before a world leaders’ summit there.
More than 6,500 people braved sweltering heat to take partin the rally, demanding a reduction in U.S. forces in Okinawaand protesting against recent crimes allegedly committed by U.S.servicemen based on the island.
Banners reading “Peace now,” “Return the bases toOkinawa” and “Marines Out of Okinawa” fluttered in the seabreeze.
More than half a century of sharing the island with the U.S.military was enough, said one speaker.
“How many times do we have to hold rallies like this afterterrible incidents? The people of Okinawa are tired of beingtreated as if they aren’t humans,” Suzuyo Takasato, a leadingwomen’s rights activist, told the crowd.
Just this month, a U.S. Marine was arrested for allegedlymolesting a 14-year-old girl while she slept at her home and anairman was detained in a hit-an-run accident.
The rally comes less than a week before the July 21-23 Groupof Eight (G8) nations summit and is bound to prove embarrassingto the U.S. military, which has faced years of protests over thebases on Okinawa and the conduct of its personnel.
“They are holding the summit in the place that representsthe greatest embarrassment to the Japanese government,” saidparliament member Seiken Akamine of the Communist Party.
Security was tight at the event, with hundreds of police,most of them in plain clothes, around the rally site—abeach-front stage just a few miles from severalU.S. bases.
It was the biggest such rally since 1995, when the rape of a12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen causedanti-base sentiment to boil over and more than 80,000 peoplegathered to demand the reduction and removal of U.S. troops fromthe island.
Organizers of today’s rally said they were calling formeasures to reduce crimes and improve the conduct of U.S. troopsas well as a cut in the overall military presence on the island.
Several in the crowd said the summit would do little.
“I don’t expect the problem with the bases to changebecause of the summit. But to commit crimes like this before theevent is beyond belief,” said Kaoru Kinjo, 40, an officeworker.
President Bill Clinton is due to arrive later next week,becoming the first U.S. president to visit Okinawa since theUnited States handed it back to Japan in 1972.
About 26,000 of the 48,000 U.S. military personnel in Japanare stationed in Okinawa—just over one-quarter of the totalU.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
U.S. Clamps Down
There is scant likelihood that the United States will quitOkinawa given the strategic importance it attaches to itspresence there in case of conflict in East Asia.
“The anti-base movement moves like magma,” the Okinawadaily Ryukyu Shimpo said in an editorial today, warningthat simmering public anger could spark an eruption.
Residents of the island have long argued that with less thanone percent of Japan’s land and one percent of its population,they bear an unfair burden.
This week, Okinawa Vice-Governor Hideo Ishikawa led adelegation to Tokyo and met top U.S. and Japanese officials toexpress concern over the recent alleged crimes.
The U.S. military, seeking to prevent other incidents in therun-up to the G8, has imposed strict measures to reduce tensionsand prevent further embarrassment involving its personnel.
The steps include an indefinite late-night curfew and a banon drinking both off and on the bases for all branches of thearmed forces. The ban will last at least until after the summit.
U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley has offered a formal apology toJapanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono for the two recentincidents.