KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This week President Obama will make a historic visit to Hiroshima where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. Ahead of the visit, another legacy of the war is drawing attention - the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.
A former marine was recently arrested for the gruesome killing of a Japanese woman there. President Obama spoke about the case today after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
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BARACK OBAMA: This has shaken up, I think, people in Okinawa as well as people throughout Japan.
MCEVERS: NPR's Elise Hu has more.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: You don't have to be able to find Marine Air Station Futenma on a map to know where it is. Just listen for the aircraft.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: CH-53 - that's the one we're looking at now - the bigger one. And the one that was in front of it was the Cobra helicopter.
HU: Futenma is the home base for 3,300 American forces and 60 aircraft. Colonel Peter Lee is commander here.
COLONEL PETER LEE: This is a very, very stable, peaceful region, and our 70 years of presence has undergirded that.
HU: The presence started after the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War was waged on Okinawa. The tiny chain of islands hours south of Tokyo became the only part of Japan that America invaded and occupied. Troops never really left. Today it's a key strategic location for the U.S. security commitment to Japan and the region.
LEE: We're prepared for all type of contingencies, whether that's a tsunami or whether it's an earthquake or whether it's some sort of conflict that might develop in one of the seas or the oceans that surround us.
HU: Preparation for tensions on the seas is particularly timely lately. But how much of the security burden should be shouldered by Okinawa? That question is at the center of a long-running standoff between the islands and the central Japanese government.
Okinawa is less than one percent of Japan's total geographic area, but it hosts more than 70 percent of U.S. bases. Near a pristine bay on the northern end of Okinawa island, grassroots groups have protested a proposed relocation of Air Station Futenma for years. They want the air station out of Okinawa altogether, as does Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga.
TAKESHI ONAGA: (Speaking Japanese).
HU: "I don't oppose the presence of American military," Onaga told NPR. "But since there are so many bases," he said, "I think the locations should be balanced across all of Japan." With military bases have come problems like environmental damage, noise, accidents and the occasional violent crime committed by American troops.
JEFF KINGSTON: It really started back in 1995 when there was a gang rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl.
HU: Jeff Kingston heads the Asian Studies department at Tokyo's Temple University.
KINGSTON: And that ignited massive demonstrations all over Okinawa. And since then, there have been a number of other, similar type of crimes.
HU: And just last week, the arrest of a former U.S. Marine who works on an Okinawa base in connection with the rape and killing of a local woman.
KINGSTON: So that has sort of sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the room.
HU: Diplomats from both countries have scrambled to contain the fallout. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, through a translator, said the case dominated his bilateral talk with President Obama.
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SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) I conveyed to the president that such feelings of the Japanese people should be taken to heart sincerely.
HU: The feelings are strongest on Okinawa. Again, Jeff Kingston.
KINGSTON: Okinawans have had enough. They're fed up, and they want Tokyo and Washington to do more to protect the local people against the over-presence of American military.
HU: As the president remembers the lives lost in Hiroshima, the latest controversy on Okinawa is another reminder that the war's legacy lives on some 70 years later. Elise Hu, NPR News, Ginowan, Okinawa.
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