Thousands of people rallied in Okinawa on Sunday to protest a controversial U.S. air base, as a two-decade-old bitter row over its relocation drags on.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the U.S. service personnel stationed in Japan under the bilateral defense alliance, a proportion many islanders say is too high.
U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has become emblematic of that ill will since Washington announced plans to move it in 1996, hoping to ease tensions with the host community after the gang rape of a schoolgirl by American servicemen.
But locals have blocked the move to relocate the base, insisting the facility should be moved outside the prefecture instead, muddying relations between the central government and Okinawa.
“The government says we are to blame that the issue has stalled for 19 years and they tell us to find an alternative place (for the base relocation). That’s outrageous,” Susumu Inamine, the anti-U.S. base mayor of the city of Nago, shouted.
“The government is thrusting their responsibility on us,” Inamine told a crowd packed into a 15,000-seat baseball stadium.
Organizers estimated that about 35,000 people also turned up for a rally in Naha, the prefectural capital.
Deadlock has deepened recently after preparatory work off the Henoko coastal district began in the face of vehement opposition of the local government.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month insisted the current relocation plan is “the only solution,” while Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga hit back, saying that three recent elections in the prefecture all showed overwhelming opposition to the move.
“The current government is pushing the plan. Is it really a democratic country?” said protester Kiku Nakayama, 86, who as a teenager worked as a nurse caring for soldiers toward the end of World War II. “We have to remove the risks of exposing Okinawa to war again.”
While mainland Japan values the protection the U.S. alliance gives it, especially in the context of China’s growing regional assertiveness, a sizable proportion of Okinawans want a dramatic reduction in their numbers.
Service for reporters
Naha, Okinawa Pref. — A memorial service was held Sunday for 14 reporters killed during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa near the end of World War II.
Some 150 people attended the event at a monument honoring journalists who died in the fighting between Japanese and American troops, with participants renewing their vow to avoid wielding pens for war.
The ceremony was held ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of the battle on June 23, 1945. In the savage fighting, 1 in 4 local civilians were killed.