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Okinawan Landowner Allowed on U.S. Base, But Legal Battle Continues

May 14, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ A grocery store owner was allowed on a U.S Navy base today to inspect a plot of land expropriated from his family decades ago, a symbolic victory for opponents of the American military on Okinawa.

Shoichi Chibana and about 30 friends and relatives marked the event with traditional Okinawan songs. They also offered prayers to Chibana’s grandfather, who died defending the land during World War II.

``I’m finally able to hold my head up and go in through the front gates,″ Chibana told reporters before entering the Navy’s Sobe communications center. ``I’m very happy.″

Hundreds of supporters rallied outside the base gates, many waving bright red banners or carrying picket signs, as Chibana went in.

The U.S. military has come under increasing scrutiny on Okinawa since three American servicemen raped a schoolgirl last September. The United States has said it will vacate the Sobe facility once a replacement has been completed on a nearby Marine base.

In the meantime, Japan’s government has stressed that although its 20-year lease with Chibana expired March 31, the continued use of his land is necessary under the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty.

To keep Chibana away from his land, the government has initiated complex legal proceedings to force the renewal of the lease, a process that could take months.

Okinawa _ which is about one-tenth the size of the island of Hawaii _ is host to a sprawling air base and nearly 30,000 troops, including the largest contingent of Marines outside the United States.

Though less than one percent of Japan’s total area, Okinawa accounts for about 75 percent of all Japanese land reserved for U.S. military bases, which take up one-fifth of the island.

Because of the limited space on Okinawa, and the island’s bitter history as a bloody World War II battlefield, tensions between the troops and Okinawans are endemic.

Since the rape, Okinawan Gov. Masahide Ota has made the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Okinawa over the next 20 years a political priority.

Ota’s stance has won little sympathy from officials in Tokyo, who strongly support the current military arrangement with Washington.

Even many of Ota’s supporters are concerned that Okinawa’s economy could be seriously hurt if the Americans were to leave. Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture (state).

Some 32,000 Okinawans own plots of land that have been expropriated, most of them soon after the war, for the bases. The Japanese government pays them rent, which is kept roughly in line with the value of similar property off base.

Most landowners seem satisfied with the arrangement, but roughly 3,000 are known to oppose the continued use of their land. Their leases are due to expire in another year.

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