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Despite Uproar on Okinawa, Hundreds of Thousands Attend Navy Airshow

April 13, 1996

ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan (AP) _ Undaunted by a national debate over the presence of the U.S. military in Japan, hundreds of thousands of Japanese descended on this U.S. Navy base today for its annual two-day airshow.

Standing before an American A-6 ``Intruder″ attack aircraft, his 3-month-old daughter sleeping in her stroller, Takuji Kurihara said he felt reassured.

``Japan needs America here to defend us,″ he said, his wife nodding in agreement. ``It may not be a perfect relationship, but I’m glad they’re here.″

Few questioned the need for this base, located just south of Tokyo, or any other American base on Japanese soil.

Instead, they lined up in droves for a chance to see the inside of a dull gray transport plane, to buy an authentic baseball cap with the USS Independence aircraft carrier’s insignia, or eat hot dogs cooked by fighter pilots in grease-splattered flight suits.

``They only let us in a couple times a year,″ said Kurihara, a Shinto priest at a nearby shrine. ``It’s so awesome here.″

The popularity of the Navy’s annual ``Wings″ airshow, the biggest in Asia, reflects the generally friendly feelings most Japanese have for America, their country’s closest political and economic ally.

But the turnout _ 300,000 people today alone _ is particularly significant because it comes amid increasing opposition to the U.S. military presence.

The most recent flare-up of anti-base anger was touched off by the rape last September of a 12-year-old girl on Okinawa, where most of the U.S. troops are based.

The rape sparked massive rallies _ including one on Okinawa in October that drew more than 60,000 people and another in Tokyo this month of 30,000.

Though such figures indicate serious tensions underlying the deployment of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, they can make relations between the two countries look worse than they really are.

Few Japanese advocate any drastic changes in Tokyo’s ties _ economic or political _ with Washington. Most welcome President Clinton’s scheduled arrival in Tokyo next Tuesday.

``The Okinawans feel they are being sacrificed,″ said Shoji Murakami, an Atsugi neighbor. ``I live near a base, but I still realize that we need the troops, though they can be an inconvenience.″

Even on Okinawa, where local leaders are demanding the withdrawal of all 27,000 U.S. forces from their island by 2015, the protests have been strictly anti-military, not anti-American.

In fact, one woman who tried to burn an American flag during the October rally on Okinawa was dragged off the stage while organizers stamped out the flames.

The announcement Friday that a key Marine air facility on Okinawa will be closed within the next five to seven years has eased some of the anger, though the problem is likely to continue.

And though faced with far less opposition than their colleagues on Okinawa, the Navy did revise its program this year out of concern over the heightened tensions.

Pamela Warnken, a spokeswoman for the base, said security has been tightened to avert incidents, and rehearsals had been changed to cut down on noise and flight time over heavily populated areas.

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