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The greatest naval armada the world had ever seen assembled on April 1, 1945, before the Ryukyu island chain. Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa by Allied forces, was about to begin. The fleet assembled for the task consisted of more than 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleships, 200 destroyers and hundreds of assorted support ships. Over 180,000 troops made the assault on Easter Sunday.

Fifty-five years later, the Americans are still in Okinawa, part of Japan’s southernmost island chain. “Pulling the lanyard off is a lot of fun,” says Lance Cpl. Joshua Clark of the U.S. Marine Corps after firing 155 mm artillery rounds downrange in the maneuver area, reports the local U.S. Army paper.

The long-term Japanese residents of Okinawa, as well as those in the Yausubetsu area in northern Japan, are less amused. “Go home Americans!” is a slogan that is often heard today in Japan, and not only from Japanese Communists. The security and alliance policy is now a major issue for all politicians in Japan.

The presence of 42,000 U.S. troops in Japan almost two generations after World War II ended has become a political issue. Japan transfers $2.5 billion annually to Washington. Even at the height of the Cold War, Germany never paid as much for U.S. troops stationed on its soil.

The issue of the military bases will soon become an international topic. The leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations have chosen the island of Nago in Okinawa for their next meeting on July 21-23. U.S. President Bill Clinton will feel at home at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab, a slice of America that lies just 10 km from Nago.

The territory of Okinawa was returned to the Japanese in 1972, but 30 percent of the land area is still used by the Americans. The 7th Pacific Fleet, with its gigantic aircraft carriers and huge, nuclear-armed submarines, are using the bases. Rapid-deployment forces of the 3rd U.S. Marine Division and the elite forces of the Marine Expeditionary Force, including the planes and helicopters of the Marine Air Wing, are also here. This is America, with U.S. towns, shopping malls and cinemas. The 7th Communications Battalion does its listening work from satellite bases here.

But nobody in Japan talks freely about the enemy these forces are supposed to keep in check. Sure, the bases in Okinawa are an important link in the chain of U.S. installations reaching from California over Guam and Okinawa right through the Philippines (which now wants to re-enter some sort of defense agreement) and Singapore to the Gulf States.

The bases are also a deterrent to North Korea and are part of the security backup for South Korea, as well as offering Taiwan a security umbrella.

But in talks with Japanese and U.S. politicians, diplomats and military officers, it becomes clear that the danger from North Korea is thought to be diminishing. North Korea has been so weakened by its catastrophic domestic policies that its ability to seriously threaten the status quo on the Korean Peninsula is much reduced. The country doesn’t even have enough fuel to run a serious war.

The potential enemy nobody talks about — and which is today the real reason for the large U.S. presence in Japan — is China.

On the surface, Japan-China relations have improved enormously in the last 20 years. Japan has extended more soft loans to China than the combined total of World Bank credits to Beijing. Fifteen thousand Japanese and Chinese take part in student-exchange programs. Politicians and businessmen reassure each other at every meeting.

But there has been a change of mood in Japan toward China. “Because the Chinese never tire in their criticism of us, the Japanese public is looking at China with new eyes,” says Keizo Takemi, a former deputy foreign minister and one of the leading Japanese China experts in the Liberal Democratic Party.

Even more direct is Mineo Nakajima, president of the Tokyo Language University and a leading China scholar. He speaks about the growing mistrust of China that is becoming evident in Japan. He also talks about what he calls Japan’s family ties with Taiwan. This is not an isolated rightwing view, but an opinion voiced widely in intellectual and political circles. The tone, not only in China, but also in Japan, has become more nationalistic.

China can only blame itself for this development. Its constant criticism of Japan is not helping to repair old wounds — a declared aim of bilateral relations. Japanese diplomats and politicians have not forgotten the behavior of Chinese President Jiang Zemin during his 1998 state visit, when he broke all protocol and demanded an apology from the Emperor for Japan’s wartime conduct. His visit may have been an opportunity for Jiang to play to the growing nationalist gallery in China, but it went down like a lead balloon with his hosts. Eighteen months later, the damage done by Jiang to Japan-China relations during his Tokyo visit is still palpable.

This is the reason, despite widespread public dissatisfaction with the American presence in Okinawa, that Japan retains its security arrangement with the United States.

In a Pentagon paper assessing the global-security situation after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. president was reminded of two prime security goals of U.S. policy: to thwart, under any circumstances, the resurgence of the Russian threat, and to prevent China from becoming the danger to U.S. interests that the Soviets once were.

The China threat, which nobody dares to debate in public outside the walls of Washington think tanks, can only be stopped by the barrier of the Japan-U.S. security alliance. Whatever the residents of Okinawa think, this is the Realpolitik that will keep the Americans from going home.

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