Tens of Thousands Rally Against U.S. Bases on Okinawa
GINOWAN, Japan (AP) _ For most of his life, 56-year-old Seiko Nakata has either been at war with American soldiers or living next to them. Now, he’s had enough.
``For all these years, we shouted and no one listened,″ the Okinawan farmer said Saturday after a huge anti-U.S. military protest. ``But this time I think we are finally being heard. Things are going to change.″
Police said about 58,000 people, many wearing blood-red headbands or waving placards with anti-military slogans, attended Saturday’s rally. Organizers claimed more than 80,000 people took part.
Participants protested the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl, for which three American servicemen have been charged, and demanded the number of U.S. troops here be reduced.
It was clearly the the biggest rally of its kind ever held on this southern Japanese island. The largest previous anti-U.S. military protest was a gathering of 25,000 five years ago.
Okinawa, strategically located near China, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula, has long been one of the United States’ most important military outposts in the Pacific.
Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops, including the largest contingent of Marines outside the United States, are stationed here, and tensions between the troops and Okinawans are endemic.
American troops in Japan commit more crimes proportionately than the Japanese, and servicemen in Japan have been tried for sexual crimes more than anywhere else, according to U.S. military records.
Opponents also have long complained that Okinawa, which was a bloody World War II battle site, bears too much of the U.S.-Japan security burden.
All but about 15,000 of the U.S. troops in Japan are stationed on Okinawa. Roughly 75 percent of the land set aside for the U.S. military in Japan is here, though Okinawa makes up less than 1 percent of Japan.
Saturday’s rally was peaceful, though one woman jumped on the stage and tried to burn an American flag. She was quickly overpowered by organizers.
Along with its size, the rally was extraordinary because it was supported by all major political parties on Okinawa, from conservative to communist.
``The turnout shows just how serious the situation has gotten,″ said Okinawa’s Gov. Masahide Ota. ``If we had been taken seriously before, this would never have happened.″
Shocked by the rape, many Japanese have grown more sympathetic to Okinawa’s concerns. A similar demonstration was held in Tokyo on Saturday, drawing a reported 12,000 protesters.
Hundreds of city and regional assemblies nationwide have passed resolutions denouncing the rape and demanding the number of U.S. troops on Okinawa be reduced.
The uproar has also become a political embarrassment for Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who has found himself in the position of defending the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Many rank-and-file members of his own Socialist Party are extremely critical of the alliance, which until recently the party officially opposed.
Though Murayama at first tried to play down the problem and emphasize the importance of the alliance with Washington, he now says he supports scaling back the Okinawa bases.
He also has said he will discuss the matter with President Clinton at an economic summit next month in Japan _ less than two weeks after the Nov. 7 trial date for the three Americans accused in the rape.
Facing possible life sentences are Navy Seaman Marcus Gill, 22, of Woodville, Texas; Marine Pfc. Rodrico Harp, 21, of Griffin, Ga.; and Marine Pfc. Kendrick Ledet, 20, of Waycross, Ga. If convicted, they would be sent to a Japanese prison.