CHATAN, Okinawa Pref. — It’s an early Tuesday evening at Morgan’s, a popular bar along Gate Two Road, and the mood is festive.

Tonight is Irish sing-along night and, for U.S. Marines from nearby Camp Foster and U.S. Air Force personnel from the adjacent Kadena Air Base, it’s a chance to relax after missions in Saudi Arabia to enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

Two dozen officers and enlisted men are at the bar, one of several in the area. Unlike some establishments, Morgan’s is open to Japanese and foreigners and a few younger Japanese venture inside.

For two hours, the Americans bellow out traditional Irish pub favorites as the Japanese customers watch with detached amusement.

“This area is picking up again. A curfew for the Gate Two Road area in Chatan went into effect in the fall of 1995 but was lifted last year,” a Camp Foster marine said.

The marines and air force have worked hard to regain the public’s trust in the wake of the rape of a local schoolgirl by three servicemen in September 1995.

The lifting of the curfew was to be short-lived, however. On Monday, the U.S. military reimposed it after a 19-year-old marine was arrested on charges of indecency and unlawful entry after he allegedly entered a house and fondled a 14-year-old girl.

The incident, coming on the eve of the Group of Eight summit, shocked and outraged Japan and renewed calls for the U.S. military to leave Okinawa.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War in Europe, the U.S. military presence in Asia, especially Okinawa, remains strong. The U.S. maintains 38 military facilities here, nearly 75 percent of its total presence in Japan.

As of this year, over 26,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors are in Okinawa, along with 23,000 dependents. Just over 8,000 civilians work on the bases, officials said.

The major military contingent is marines, with about 12,000 troops, followed by the air force with 7,000. The two forces have similar missions in some ways, but that of the marines is broader.

“Okinawa is home to the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, one of three such forces and the only one to be located outside of the U.S.,” Col. David Rann said.

Over the years, the marines’ mission has expanded. In addition to rapid response readiness to Asia-Pacific crises, particularly on the Korean Peninsula, the marines in Okinawa are also responsible for peacekeeping operations, peace enforcement, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, Rann said.

The 3rd MEF operates from 16 facilities and dispatches troops to locations as far away as the Persian Gulf.

Last year, it provided operational assistance to Australian troops who went into East Timor. Past humanitarian efforts included evacuation of refugees in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, New Guinea, the Philippines and Kuwait City during the Gulf War.

“By being located in Okinawa, we are within easy helicopter range to potential trouble spots on the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. In addition, we are well-placed to patrol the sealanes of Southeast Asia,” Rann said.

The mission of the air force, mainly through the Kadena base, is to support troops on the Korean Peninsula, as well as fly patrols in the region.

“Kadena will probably be the last of the military facilities on Okinawa to be returned to Japan because of its size and importance,” said Lt. Col. Brian Hoey, an air force spokesman.

Both Japan and the U.S. recognize that, as since 1995, public opposition has become much more vocal. The rape that September lit the fires of smoldering resentment toward the bases.

But according to the Suntory Foundation’s Robert Eldridge, a U.S. expert on Okinawa, the protests were also due to a U.S. policy proposal seven months earlier.

“In February 1995, Joseph Nye, then an assistant defense secretary, recommended that 100,000 troops in Asia, and about 45,000 troops in Japan, remain. To many Okinawans, the Nye report just reaffirmed the status quo, while the rape reaffirmed the problems of following that report,” Eldridge said.

Afterward, the Japanese and U.S. governments formed the Special Action Committee on Okinawa. In December 1996, SACO released its final report, which recommended that 11 facilities be returned to Japan.

At the same time, the U.S. military stepped up its efforts to work with the local communities. The marines established an office for a community liaison and instituted new, stricter rules for servicemen and women when they are off base.

From April, they also began serving as volunteer English teachers in local schools.

These efforts, plus the 1998 election of Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine, who has closer ties with the Liberal Democratic Party-led central government than his predecessor Masahide Ota, also led to the re-establishment of official contacts between Okinawan and U.S. military officials through the Tripartite Liaison Committee.

Originally formed in 1979, the committee included senior military, prefectural and Foreign Ministry representatives and met to discuss mutual problems. In 1995, during Ota’s second term as governor, the committee was suspended because of his opposition to the bases.

It was reactivated in February 1999.

Unofficially, contacts between the U.S. military and local officials have been increasing as well. Brig. Gen. James Smith, commander of the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base, has been an active proponent of a “bases without fences” policy.

This includes regular, informal meetings with elected officials of three townships that surround Kadena.

What are the results of these efforts in curbing crimes by military personnel? According to prefectural police statistics, as of the end of 1998, the U.S. military accounted for 4 percent of the population and about 1 percent of all offenses committed in the prefecture, from traffic violations to murder.

In 1988, police investigated 177 crimes involving U.S. military personnel, including four robberies and two rapes.

In 1995, when new rules related to dress and behavior went into effect, the total number dropped to 70, including one murder and rape.

In 1998, the total number of cases investigated had declined to 38, with three robberies but no incidents of rape or murder. While U.S. and Okinawan officials admit that many crimes go unreported, there is no mistaking a downward trend.

Public relations efforts appear to be alleviating some of the tension over the bases. But for Okinawan politicians and bureaucrats, the more basic question of further reductions remains paramount.

While some favor complete U.S. withdrawal, the majority emphasize continued reductions plus economic incentives from the central government.

“Further efforts by the U.S. and the central government must be made to ease the burden, especially with regard to the Futenma Air Station relocation issue,” said Noriaki Kakazu, a local LDP official.

For their part, U.S. military officials say further reductions beyond the SACO agreement are not possible without affecting operational readiness. “We’re down to bare bones here,” Rann said.

However, defense experts are divided on the issue. Some, like Mike Mochizuki from the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., and Richard Armitage, a possible secretary of defense should George W. Bush be elected president in November, believe further reductions are possible.

They note that, before the Nye report came out, there had been talk that troop levels in Asia could be reduced to about 95,000, about 5,000 fewer than current levels.

Others, including former U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield, have suggested some marine units could be redeployed to Anderson Field in Guam or possibly Hawaii or Singapore.

Those favoring an Okinawan presence, however, say such moves would make a rapid, coordinated response to any regional crisis impossible.

In the meantime, the Futenma issue and the controversy over the 15-year time limit sought by both the city of Nago, where the air station is to be relocated, and the prefectural government illustrate that communication between the U.S., the central government and the local communities remains contentious.

One solution, advocated by Eldridge, would be for Okinawan officials to participate as observers in any discussion between the U.S. and Japan on Okinawan issues.

That idea is endorsed by Kakazu, as well as a number of U.S. defense experts.

Okinawan and U.S. military officials privately say, however, that it will be a while before that is likely to happen, because the Foreign Ministry is cool toward the idea.

“The Foreign Ministry has a history of ignoring the concerns of the Okinawan people. As a result, we often have to bring up their complaints with the central government,” said a U.S. military official speaking anonymously.

“We would, of course, welcome any invitation by the central government to participate more in discussions about the base issue. But it would be very difficult for the local government to participate on an equal footing with Washington and Tokyo,” said Seiichi Oyakawa, a senior prefectural official.

For the servicemen who hang out in Morgan’s, though, the answer to the Okinawa problem is clear.

They are there to protect Japan from North Korea, China and smaller threats, such as pirates or terrorists.

While the U.S. should do everything it can, including reducing forces further if necessary, understanding on the part of the local community and the local media is needed.

“At the end of the day, this is still a dangerous region and our being here prevents more problems than our not being here would. We don’t get a lot of credit for that,” a U.S. airman said.

In his justification for continuing to maintain forces in Japan and Okinawa, former Defense Secretary Nye said security is like oxygen: you don’t notice it until you don’t have it when you need it.

The U.S. military says that its presence allows all of Asia to breathe easier. It recognizes some Okinawans are suffocating, though, and, within the guidelines of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, is making efforts to reduce tensions.

And Okinawans, after 55 years of a continued U.S. military presence, are holding their breath, hoping for more U.S. base reductions but also concerned about how what will happen economically, and politically, when the last U.S. soldier finally departs.