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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 October 2005, 08:28 GMT 09:28 UK
Okinawa base battle resolved
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News website

Japan and the US appeared on Wednesday to have resolved a fierce debate over the future of a key US military base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Children join a peaceful demonstration outside Kadena Air Base at Chatan in Okinawa, protesting against the U.S. military presence on the southern Japanese island Friday, July 6, 2001.
Okinawans have long complained about the impact of the US bases

The rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen in Futenma air base in 1995 caused an outcry on the island, and Tokyo and Washington agreed that Futenma's facilities, currently in a densely populated residential area, would be moved elsewhere.

Such are the sensitivities of the US base issue in Okinawa, however, that the two sides have taken 10 years to come to a decision on a new location.

A planned visit to Okinawa by US President George W Bush in mid-November appears to have concentrated minds, and both sides said on Wednesday that agreement had now been reached.

The two options that appeared to dominate discussions were both controversial.

The US government wanted to build a new base on a coral reef close to Henoko, in Nago prefecture. But the plan generated strong protests from Okinawans who are concerned that the local environment, home to the rare dugong sea creature, would be ruined.

So the Japanese government suggested an alternative - to use part of the existing US base at Camp Schwab, and build a smaller facility off Henoko.

The Pentagon did not like this idea initially, however, saying it would disrupt training at Camp Schwab, according to Japanese media reports.

But following Wednesday's announcement, the US appears to have settled for the Japanese option, though details remain sketchy.

Seeds of discontent

There is a long history of opposition to US forces within Okinawa. Some residents feel that it is unfair that a string of tiny islands which account for only 0.6% of Japan's landmass are host to 66% of the US military personnel in the country.

But others point out that they are a valuable source of income in one of Japan's poorest provinces.

There are regular protests whenever a crime is committed by the US forces in Okinawa, and about the noise and pollution their activities generate.

But the public protests over Henoko have been remarkable both for their duration, the attention they have generated in the rest of Japan, and the affect this has apparently had on the Japanese government.

Protesters occupying Platform No 5, December 2004
Protesters have physically got in the way of work at Henoko

At first glance, the agreement is a coup for these protesters, who have spent the last eight years pressing for the US plan to be dropped.

Kenichi Moriyama, 63, spent more than a year - first sitting in a tent on the shore, and then out at sea - seeking to prevent the authorities from carrying out a preparatory survey in the area.

"The contractors of this project, with the defence facility agency officers, came to Henoko to start a drilling survey. They said that is needed prior to the construction. We stopped them," Mr Moriyama said simply.

The protesters, whom Mr Moriyama said have numbered more than 40,000 from all over Japan, used various tactics - physically getting in the way of the contractors by sailing boats in front of the drilling platforms or climbing onto the platforms themselves.

But when asked prior to Wednesday's announcement whether the Japanese government's plan for Henoko was preferable, the protesters were doubtful.

"It's a very silly plan. Eighty per cent of Okinawan people are against new construction in Henoko," said Suzuyo Takazato, chair of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence.

"Even the prefectural government is asking that the plan should be outside Okinawa," she said.

Dugong. Credit: Toba Aquarium
Also known as sea cows, can grow to 3m in length
Inhabit shallow waters in Indo-Pacific; feed on sea grass
Long life span and slow breeding rate mean susceptible to threats

She added that the Japanese government's plan was easier to carry out, because the protesters would be unable to stake out Camp Schwab, where much of the new facilities would be constructed, and Tokyo could argue that Camp Schwab was already established anyway.

Ms Takazato also said that there had been no "close analysis" of the new proposal.

"I don't know how much noise would affect the environment. Japan government [decided on this plan] without any close and deep consultation with local people."

The decision on Futenma is not just important for Okinawans.

It may also indicate the longer-term plans the Pentagon has for its forces in Japan.

Henoko (Credit: Greenpeace)
Protesters say Henoko bay should not be ruined

Yasuhiro Tanaka, at the International Christian University in Tokyo, believes that both the US and Japanese governments' long-term plan is for the burden of Pacific defence to shift onto Japan.

"For the next few years, perhaps up to 10, 15 years, the US will keep its presence at the current level of deployment; but in the long run - whenever Washington thinks the Japanese Defence Force is able to take over - the Japanese will have a larger role in Okinawa.

It remains to be seen whether Okinawans would be much happier with this scenario. Having a domestic, rather than foreign, force in the prefecture would of course be less culturally sensitive, but factors such as noise and environmental impact might still be an issue.

Mr Moriyama said of the current impact of the bases: "The soil here is red.. and once it rains the red soil flows into the sea and the sea turns red because [the US forces] dispose of explosives in the mountains... We have suffered from the bases for 60 years already."

What do you think about the plan to relocate the US base on Okinawa? Do you live in the area? Do you think the decision will resolve the controversy? Send us your comments and experiences.

World War 2 ended 60 years ago, and the Cold War is over. The real threats to security are no longer military. Global warming, pandemics, and economic collapse are far more serious. Close the bases and use the money to address these problems.
James B. Cole, Tsukuba, Japan

The Okinawans have suffered under both the Japanese government and the U.S. military. The people of Okinawa were innocent bystanders, slaughetered by the two clashing armies during World War II. And now they are pawns used by the two governments. It is my sincerest wish that the U.S. base moves out of Okinawa and gives the people of the belegaured prefecture some peace.
Ridwan Khan, Hirakata, Japan

I was horrified when I learned of this plan. Coral reefs are in decline in most, if not all of the world. We (humans, regardless of country) should be wise enough not to contribute to their loss. On the other hand, the Japanese are not exactly known for their outstanding stewardship of the marine environment. Perhaps this situation can be used to everyone's advantage.
N Dent, Guam

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