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AUGUST 4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Kazuhiro Nogi.

In the Shadow of Giants
Okinawans wish for a little peace and quiet
By MURAKAMI MUTSUKO Nago

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On the western side of Nago in Okinawa, the leaders of the G8 nations surveyed the world from the newly built $27-million convention center. To the city's east, by a pre-fabricated hut erected near the shore, Kinjyo Yuji looks out over the blue ocean stretching to the horizon. The scene is peaceful now, but the 65-year-old mango farmer is afraid that in a few years it will be filled with the warlike clamor of a U.S. military helicopter base. "Some fishermen in this area have been offered 100 million yen [$920,000] as compensation for losing their jobs," Kinjyo says. "But there are things that money cannot buy."

While the G8 grappled with the emerging problems of globalization, what preoccupied Kinjyo and many other Okinawans during the summit was a legacy of the past — the U.S. military bases that dominate the islands. Nago, already home to one camp, has been earmarked for a heliport that Tokyo and Washington promised to remove from Futenma in the crowded center of the main island of Okinawa. Kinjyo and many townspeople set up the "protest hut" near the proposed site. But not everyone supports them, as the planned base is backed not only by the will of Japan and the U.S. but comes with a huge package of economic incentives — including the holding of the G8 summit in Nago. "We are trapped and divided," Kinjyo says.

Okinawa has always been trapped. It was an independent trading nation until the 17th century when it was annexed by warlords from Japan. It was the site of the last great battle of World War II, in which nearly 240,000 people including some 150,000 civilians — a third of the population — were killed. Americans governed the islands until 1972 and U.S. bases still take up a fifth of the area of the main island. Long-held anti-base feeling boiled over in 1995, after three U.S. servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl. Demonstrations up to 85,000 strong gathered in protest, prompting Tokyo and Washington to promise steps to ease the military burden on Okinawa, including moving a Marine air base from Futenma.

Anti-base sentiments are complicated by a feeling of betrayal by Japan. In the Battle of Okinawa, many civilians were killed not by invading American troops but by Japanese soldiers intent on death before surrender. In the years since, resentment built up over how Okinawa, with 1% of Japan's land, houses 75% of U.S. military facilities in the country, feelings aggravated when Tokyo failed to get any other prefecture to accept Futenma's marines. Moreover, much of Japan's economic development passed Okinawa by, leaving it the country's poorest prefecture with the highest rate of joblessness and lowest rate of college attendance.

For the U.S., Okinawa is the pivot of its East Asian military presence. The approximately 26,000 troops stationed there amount to half its strength in Japan and a quarter of that in the region. The islands also will be a key staging area for units coming from the U.S. in the event of conflict. Speaking just before the summit at a memorial commemorating the dead of the Battle of Okinawa, President Bill Clinton said the islands play a vital role not just for the U.S. alliance with Japan but for security throughout the region. "Asia is largely at peace today because our alliance gives people throughout this region confidence that the peace will be defended and preserved," he said. But Clinton acknowledged the burden Okinawans shoulder, and promised to "reduce our footprint" on the islands.

So Okinawa plays its unwanted role. The islands and their people are still groping for where they fit between the U.S. and Japan. Anti-base feelings have cooled since 1995 — after all they have been a fact of life for so long — but have not faded under the constant reminder of screaming jets flying overhead. Military-related crimes still cause outrage. Earlier this year, a drunken marine allegedly snuck into a house and molested a 14-year-old girl while she was sleeping. That and the opportunity offered by the G8 summit prompted 27,000 protesters to form a human chain around Kadena Air Base on July 20. With the leaders' meeting yielding few surprises, the bases issue grabbed much of the media's attention. Farmer Kinjyo Yuji says he wished for a successful summit, but adds: "I would like the world to have ears to listen to our voice, too." In the G8's shadow, he got his wish — for a while.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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