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Okinawa dugong
The New York Times, April 25, 2010

90,000 Protest U.S. Base on Okinawa
By Martin Fackler

TOKYO — More than 90,000 Okinawans rallied Sunday to oppose the relocation of an American air base on their island, adding to the pressure on Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to resolve an issue that has divided Tokyo and Washington.

The demonstrators, in one of the largest protests on Okinawa in years, demanded that Mr. Hatoyama scrap a 2006 agreement with the United States to move the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a different site on the island. Many of the protesters wore yellow to signal they were giving Mr. Hatoyama a warning for appearing to waver on election promises to move the busy base off Okinawa altogether.

Since his party’s landmark election victory last summer, Mr. Hatoyama has promised to come up with an alternative plan that would reduce the heavy American presence on the southern Japanese island, home to nearly half of the 50,000 United States military personnel in Japan. He has given himself until the end of May to put together such a plan that would also be acceptable to Washington.

So far, his efforts to find a new location for the base have not appeased Washington; it initially demanded that Tokyo adhere to the original 2006 deal but has recently signaled greater flexibility. The 2006 deal calls for moving the base from its current location, in the center of the city of Ginowan, to Camp Schwab, an existing Marine base in less-populated northern Okinawa.

The perception that Mr. Hatoyama has mishandled the relationship with the United States, Japan’s longtime protector, has contributed to his falling approval ratings, which have dropped below 30 percent. Opposition leaders and media commentators have begun calling on him to resign if he fails to find a compromise by the end of May.

While Mr. Hatoyama has remained tight-lipped about what his plan may look like, officials from his government have made repeated visits to Okinawa to sound out local leaders. Okinawan politicians and the local news media have described the emerging plan as a modified version of the 2006 agreement.

They said the government was considering building a smaller airbase at Camp Schwab than under the 2006 agreement and moving at least part of Futenma’s functions — most likely some of its training operations, and perhaps some of its helicopters — to Tokunoshima, a smaller island about 120 miles north of Okinawa. Japanese news media have interpreted this proposal as a token gesture to appease Okinawans by moving at least some of the Marines off the island.

Okinawan leaders and local media reports have also said the government is considering constructing a new air base on an artificial island to be built off the Okinawan city of Uruma. Japanese media reports have said the island could take decades to build and would serve as a longer-term home for the Marines.

However, on Sunday, local leaders told the demonstrators that they rejected any plan that kept the air base on Okinawa. Toshio Shimabukuro, the mayor of Uruma, said he opposed the construction of the island, which he said would turn his city in “a major military site,” according to Japan’s Kyodo News.

The governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, who dropped his earlier support for the 2006 plan to join a rising movement against the base, called on the rest of Japan to share more of the burden of the American military presence. “This is not a problem that concerns only Okinawans,” he said, according to Kyodo.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton