NAHA, Okinawa Pref. (Kyodo) Painful memories of accidents and crimes involving U.S. military personnel have haunted residents near bases for decades.
People in Okinawa, which makes up just 0.6 percent of Japan’s land area but is home to nearly three-quarters of the U.S. military installations in the country, have endured the biggest share of the danger and tragedies.
The rape of a 12-year-old girl and a helicopter crash on a university campus remain vivid in the memories of many in Okinawa, which is at the heart of the diplomatic feud over what to do about the Futenma air base.
“At first I thought it was an earthquake but quickly realized it was a crash,” Shinhiko Tawada said, recalling when a U.S. Marine helicopter slammed into a building at Okinawa International University in August 2004.
Tawada was watching a baseball game on TV in the city of Ginowan, where the Futenma air station is located, close to the university as well as to the home of the 51-year-old bus driver.
No one on the ground was killed or injured in the crash, but part of Tawada’s house was damaged by debris. Well aware of the danger posed by the airfield that sits in the middle of a residential area, he is one of many locals seeking to have the Futenma facility moved out of Okinawa.
However, it appears Tawada’s hopes are becoming dimmer as the central government is narrowing down its options to select the candidate site for the relocation before entering into talks with U.S. negotiators.
“I wonder if there would be a place to host it anywhere on the main islands or overseas,” he said.
The Futenma relocation rolled into the center of relations between Japan and its most important security ally, the United States, after the Democratic Party of Japan won last summer’s general election and wrested power from the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party.
The DPJ had earlier come up with a policy blueprint in which the party said it would seek to relocate the Futenma facility out of Okinawa or Japan in a shift from a 2006 deal the LDP struck with Washington to move it to a less densely populated location within the prefecture.
Once the DPJ-led coalition was launched last fall, Cabinet ministers started laying out options for a relocation site despite persistent U.S. pressure to stick to the bilateral agreement.
Adding to the local hopes was the election in January of an antibase mayor in Nago, the city named in the 2006 accord to host Futenma’s replacement.
“The DPJ is a liar,” 87-year-old Muneyoshi Kayo, a Nago native, said during a recent meeting near the Henoko coastal area where the new airfield will be built if the bilateral deal remains as is.
“I just don’t want anyone to build a base for the purpose of war,” said Kayo, who was sent to Southeast Asia in the Japanese military during World War II and has staged a series of sit-ins with other residents.
Former Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine pointed to remarks made ahead of the election by Yukio Hatoyama that it could be expected the Futenma functions would be moved out of Okinawa Prefecture once his DPJ swept to power.
“Mr. Hatoyama’s remarks prompted high expectations among the people in Okinawa, but their hopes are now turning into anger and disappointment,” Inamine said. “If the government ends up relocating it within the prefecture, you might see people’s anger begin blowing up like pent-up magma erupts from a volcano.”
Inamine is concerned that the frustration in Okinawa could take shape in the form of massive antibase campaigns similar to those staged after the 1995 rape of the 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen — an incident that triggered the process of reviewing the heavy concentration of military forces in Okinawa, including Futenma.
Hatoyama is running out of time and ideas that could convince both the people of Okinawa and policymakers in Washington of a proper settlement.
People close to Hatoyama say it appears he is searching for a compromise conclusion before his self-imposed May 31 deadline, but strong doubts linger that he will find an answer.
Okinawa is not the only base host to feel the pain.
In Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, the home port for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, Masanori Yamazaki lost his fiancee when she was robbed and stabbed to death by an off-duty crew member of the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in January 2006.
William Reese, 25, has been sentenced to life in prison. But it remains to be seen how many years it will take for Yamazaki to receive at least some of the ¥65.7 million a Yokohama court ordered Reese to pay in a civil lawsuit.
Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, U.S. servicemen are responsible for the damage they cause while off duty.
Legal experts say many victims in criminal cases often abandon attempts to seek financial compensation because many servicemen are young and not able to pay. It is also difficult to keep tabs on them once they return to the United States.
“I thought U.S. military people were here to protect Japanese citizens . . . I feel like I’ve been betrayed,” the 62-year-old Yamazaki said. “Some U.S. servicemen don’t treat us as humans and their mind-sets could be the same as those of some of the people who once were in Japan as part of the U.S. Occupation army.”
Defense Ministry data show that 7,277 accidents and criminal cases involving U.S. military personnel were reported in the five years through March 2009, of which 6,180 occurred when the personnel were off-duty.