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Anger over crime, Osprey simmers on Okinawa

Dec. 13, 2012 - 06:51AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 13, 2012 - 06:51AM  |  
In this Nov. 30 photo, a U.S. Air Force MC130 multi-mission plane approaches to land at the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa, southwestern Japan. About 28,000 U.S. troops, mostly Marines and Air Force, are stationed on Okinawa under a bilateral alliance that's the cornerstone of Tokyo's foreign policy.
In this Nov. 30 photo, a U.S. Air Force MC130 multi-mission plane approaches to land at the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa, southwestern Japan. About 28,000 U.S. troops, mostly Marines and Air Force, are stationed on Okinawa under a bilateral alliance that's the cornerstone of Tokyo's foreign policy. (Junji Kurokawa / AP)
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Graffiti against the U.S. military base is painted on a wall where a gas station used to stand Dec. 2 across from the U.S. Air Force Kadena air base in Kadena, Okinawa, southwestern Japan. (Junji Kurokawa / AP)

OKINAWA, Japan For nearly 70 years, Okinawa has gotten more than its share of America's military more jets rattling homes, more crimes rattling nerves.

It's the only Japanese island invaded by U.S. land forces during World War II. It endured 27 years under U.S. administration, and it continues to host two-thirds of Japan's U.S. bases.

The 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor spread rage across the island of about 1.4 million. Now another rape and other crimes allegedly by U.S. servicemen have triggered a new wave of anger, though the suspects make up a tiny portion of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed here.

Some Okinawans get emotional just talking about the stress they feel living in the U.S. military's shadow.

"Everywhere, everyone who has a daughter is feeling this way," said Tomoharu Nakasone, a father of four daughters, choking back tears.

Nakasone, who runs an FM radio station, grew up with the bases and thought he was used to the idea, even forgiving a fatal 2009 hit-and-run by a serviceman as a mistake. But he was outraged by the latest rape in a parking lot in October and petrified by a bizarre incident weeks later in which a 13-year-old boy was beaten in his own home while watching TV, allegedly by a U.S. airman.

"Entering someone's home is simply not normal. It is the lowest of human behavior," he said.

There has always been a degree of strain between Okinawans and U.S. troops, but it has grown more pronounced in recent months, not only because of crime but because of safety concerns surrounding the MV-22 Osprey, a U.S. hybrid aircraft with tilting rotors recently brought to the island.

The U.S. troops, mostly Marines and Air Force, are stationed on Okinawa under a bilateral alliance that's the cornerstone of Tokyo's foreign policy.

U.S. Ambassador John Roos and the commander of the U.S. forces in Japan have apologized for the crimes, promised to cooperate with the Japanese police investigations and increased restrictions on troops.

"We take the relationship with Japan very serious," U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Lt. Col. David Honchul said. "That's why these actions have all taken place because we are trying to show the citizens of Japan that we take this serious, and we are going to address this. And it's also telling our own service members that we take this very seriously."

After the October rape, an 11 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew was set for all military personnel in Japan.

The rules were tightened further after a drunken driving accident off-base last month. Now U.S. troops in Okinawa are barred from buying or consuming alcohol off-base. Even on-base, sales of alcohol stop from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Despite the military's efforts, many Okinawans sound fed up with American troops.

"They are being trained to kill for war. They can't look at a person as a human being," said Hiyori Mekaru, a 40-year-old nurse who has lived all her life on Okinawa. "I am angry. I don't want this kind of future, where we must have our children grow up, learning the names of military planes."

Ironically, the U.S. military's influence over Okinawans is evident even in their protests against the bases. They shout at passing cars, "Get out of here!" and "We hate you!" in good vernacular English that is unusual for most Japanese but typical for Okinawans. During one recent rally protesters closed by singing "We Shall Overcome."

Okinawans got their hopes up about getting rid of the bases in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan seized control from the conservatives that have ruled the country almost incessantly since the end of World War II.

The prime minister at the time, Yukio Hatoyama, promised that the rest of Japan would share in the burden of hosting American bases. But almost as soon as he made his promise, he was kicked out of office.

The Okinawan bases have faded to a non-issue in Sunday's nationwide parliamentary elections, which are dominated by concerns about the country's nuclear disaster and economic malaise. Japan has had one prime minister after another over the past several years, making any negotiations difficult.

And so the plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, promised after the 1995 rape, to coastal and less densely populated Henoko on another part of Okinawa has gone nowhere.

Yoshikazu Tamaki, an Okinawan prefectural (state) legislator, said keeping the bases on an island that makes up less than 0.5 percent of Japan's territory is "systematic discrimination."

He said he is disgusted by how Okinawa has been treated by its own government and suggested that officials in Washington are more sympathetic about Okinawa's plight than those in Tokyo.

"These are young soldiers here, maybe 18, maybe 20," he said. "They are waging war every day. They are coming to Okinawa as a military base. The way we feel and the way they feel will never meet."

Japan must weigh Okinawans' complaints against its relationship with the U.S. military, which it values all the more as Tokyo quarrels with China over several small islands and watches nuclear-armed North Korea test its missile technology, most recently with a rocket launch Wednesday.

Okinawans are angry that Japan approved the deployment of the 12 Osprey aircraft, which began in October, though the government has asked for and received additional assurances of the aircraft's safety.

Washington says the Osprey is safe and is needed to ensure regional security. Okinawans are concerned about two Osprey crashes earlier this year, in Florida and Morocco, and because Futenma, where the aircraft make nearly daily test flights, is smack in the middle of the crowded residential area of Ginowan.

Honchul said the Osprey is "a very safe and capable aircraft" that has operated on the island without incident. Investigations into the two crashes did not find fault with the aircraft, he said.

Okinawans, however, remember how a U.S. helicopter dropped eight years ago into the Okinawa International University campus, next to Futenma base. No one was killed, and no civilians were injured in the accident.

Over the last several months, dozens of people have been gathering daily at a Futenma gate to protest the Osprey. Kazunobu Akamine, who makes and delivers lunches for a living, was among the most boisterous protesters.

He said his son was nearly killed in the 2004 helicopter crash; he had gone to the university to pick up empty lunch boxes. Talking as if World War II were yesterday, he said his grandfather was fatally shot in the head while hiding in the mountains from U.S. soldiers.

Akamine also talked about how proud he was of his father, who supported his family by checking cargo on the U.S. base, but also secretly participated in anti-base rallies.

"There are so many people like that in Okinawa," Akamine said.

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