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No easy answers in Okinawa US base debate

30 March 10 00:15 GMT

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Okinawa

The names of 200,000 Japanese troops and civilians are engraved in granite at Okinawa's memorial park, remembering the last major battle of World War II.

Alongside them are the 12,500 Americans who also perished in the brutal, inch-by-inch fight for the small, tropical island of coral 1,000 miles south of Tokyo.

The United States has been here ever since, but a peace deal signed 50 years ago was not an equal one, agreed in the aftermath of war, surrender, then occupation.

There are now 24,000 US troops on Okinawa, most of them marines, and their bases, airfields, housing and training facilities cover a fifth of the island.

The people of Okinawa felt their lives were sacrificed in the war for the sake of the country, and they now believe they are shouldering more of their share of the burden of hosting US forces - with three quarters of American facilities in Japan on their small island.

"We provide the Japanese government with a credible deterrence force - a highly effective, highly trained and very mobile force that is very strategically located," said Lieutenant General Terry Robling, commander of US marine bases in Japan.

"We think the stability of the region has been caused by our presence here. Over 50 years now there's been relative peace in the Asia region."

But it comes at a cost.

Local tensions

Japan pays $4bn (£2.6bn) a year to host the 50,000 US troops stationed across the country, and the noise, safety fears and disturbance of having so many troops in built-up areas is creating tension.

The 1995 gang rape of a young girl by US troops in Okinawa shook the relationship, a helicopter crash near Futenma air base in 2004 shocked people in Ginowan City which has grown to surround it, and crime by US personnel is also something local people complain about.

"We have not had an accident aboard Futenma since 2004 - there were no accidents at all that I know of prior to that or since then," said Colonel Dale Smith, who commands Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

"As far as safety goes we do a number of things. Helicopters come in at more steep angles and climb out at more steep rates, which gives more distance between us and the urban terrain and decreases the noise levels."

But at Futenma Elementary School, which has a playground backing on to the end of the runway, the deputy head teacher Muneo Nakamura says he fears for the children's safety every day.

'More equal'

After years of discussions the Japanese and American governments agreed a deal to restructure US forces on Okinawa.

It involved closing Futenma air base, building a new runway on reclaimed land and relocating troops at a base in the less populated north of the island. Japan would pick up $6bn of the $10bn cost.

As part of the deal, 8,000 US marines would also move to Guam, where President Obama is due next week.

But last year Yukio Hatoyama was elected prime minister, after 50 years of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

He made a campaign promise to move US troops off Okinawa as part of a creating a "more equal" partnership with America.

The original deal was put on hold and he is now torn between a threat from ruling coalition partners to withdraw support if he breaks his promise, and pressure from the US. He has promised to announce a new plan by the end of May this year.

Mr Hatoyama's stance has strained the alliance, but America has to tread carefully as it also relies on Japan as the centre of its strategic operations in Asia.

"I think the US presence is an incredibly stabilising factor. Asia is going through a period of historic strategic change in the balance of power," said Raymond Greene, the US consul general in Okinawa.

"We have the nuclear missile programmes in North Korea; obviously the rise of China is something we welcome, but as it rises economically there are many questions about military modernisation programme and its transparency, or lack thereof."

Security hub

The razor wire on the beach surrounding the northern base where troops could be moved to is covered in ribbons and protest banners.

Small but vocal demonstrations are held periodically - there is a growing feeling that Japan should go its own way and reduce its reliance on America.

But generations of Okinawans have made a living out of the US military.

Shinichiro Isa used to work on a base but is now retired. His son, Hiroyuki, currently works at Futenma air base and they accept the large American presence in exchange for the money it brings.

"It's not just because I worked on the base that I am in favour of the Americans being here," Mr Isa said.

"It's important not just for the security of Okinawa or Japan but for the whole of the region from South Korea to the Philippines."

But he does not know if there'll be the chance for his two year-old grandson, Shunpei, to follow the family tradition.

The future of US forces here depends on the military alliance continuing, and the direction in which Japan's new government wants to take the country.

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