In Okinawa, Elections Renew Debate Over U.S. Bases The U.S.-Japan alliance is showing strains again over American military bases on Japanese soil. Most of the bases are on the southern island of Okinawa. Voters in one town there have put pressure on Tokyo and Washington by electing a mayor who opposes a proposed base.
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In Okinawa, Elections Renew Debate Over U.S. Bases

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In Okinawa, Elections Renew Debate Over U.S. Bases

In Okinawa, Elections Renew Debate Over U.S. Bases

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.


And in California, I'm Madeleine Brand.

The alliance between the U.S. and Japan is showing signs of strain. And once again, U.S. military bases are the source of that strain. Most bases are on the southern island of Okinawa. Now voters in one town there, along with their newly-elected mayor, are saying enough.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has their story.

Mayor-Elect SUSUMU INAMINE (Nago, Japan): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering)

ANTHONY KUHN: A cheer goes up for Susumu Inamine, mayor-elect of the small city of Nago. At his headquarters Sunday night, supporters congratulate him and then dig into platters of sashimi and tempura.

In 2006, Tokyo and Washington agreed to relocate the Futenma Marine Air Corps Base to Nago from the crowded city down south. Inamine says his victory over the incumbent sends a clear message to Tokyo and Washington.

Mayor-Elect INAMINE: (Through translator) Seventy-five percent of U.S military bases in Japan are in Okinawa. Moving a base within Okinawa is unreasonable. Right now people are discussing reducing armed forces and bases. Relocating doesn't make sense when we should be reducing.

KUHN: Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said today that he would reconsider the relocation plan in light of Inamine's win, then resolve the issue by May as promised. Before becoming prime minister, Hatoyama had said he wanted to relocate the base out of Okinawa or out of Japan.

Earlier this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell insisted that the relocation should go ahead. But...

Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State): At the same time, we do not wish to appear intransigent. And indeed, we've tried to be very clear that our door is open for dialogue and discussions on a whole host of matters.

(Soundbite of rushing water)

KUHN: Inamine's win went over well in Nago's Henoko district. The new air base would be built on reclaimed land here, where dugongs and sea turtles now swim in turquoise blue waters.

Mr. SAKAI TOYAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Sakai Toyama is one of a band of residents who have maintained a beachside vigil for more than eight years just to make sure construction on the base doesn't start.

Mr. TOYAMA: (Through translator) I'm worried about two things. One is that the bases are close to residential areas, and I'm afraid of a plane crash and loud noise. The other is that it could damage nature here.

(Soundbite of plane)

KUHN: An F-15 Eagle takes off from U.S. Air Force Base Kadena in southern Okinawa. Bombers took off from Kadena for missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Local anger at the local U.S. military presence has occasionally exploded into protest, such as in 1995 when three U.S. servicemen raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl.

Mr. MASAHIDE OTA (Former Governor, Okinawa, Japan): We would say that the U.S.-Japan alliance has been maintained at the sacrifice of Okinawan people.

KUHN: Masahide Ota was governor of Okinawa in the 1990s. As a high school student in 1945, he witnessed the Battle of Okinawa in which nearly a third of the island's population perished. Ota says most Japanese actually want the bases - just not in their backyards on the Japanese mainland. Okinawans would fight for a better deal in the legislature, Ota says, but they only have 9 out of 732 representatives.

Mr. OTA: Democracy, you know, always majority rules. Nine people would say we don't want military bases. But majority said, oh, we want military base. So, at the name of democracy, we cannot solve the problems forever. It's really a cynical thing, you know?

KUHN: Okinawa was administered by the U.S. from 1945 to 1972. During that time, Ota says, U.S. and Japanese officials showered supporters of the military bases with money and pork barrel construction projects. Previous mayors in Nago have supported the bases saying it's both in the national interest and good for the local economy. Retired cement company manager, Yasunari Yamashiro, is an adviser to the former mayor of Nago who lost in Sunday's election.

Mr. YASUNARI YAMASHIRO (Former Adviser to Yoshikazu Shimabukuro): (Through translator) Look at Nago, it's so rural. There are few jobs and incomes are low. Young people, they all move to the cities and never come back. We are increasingly isolated. Our former mayors have always tried to develop this small city, which is why I support the incumbent.

KUHN: These debates are likely to continue throughout the year as Okinawan citizens go to the polls to elect several mayors and a new governor.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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