Okinawa Sends Tokyo and US A Clear Message: Reduce Bases American Troop Presence on Island May Be an Issue in the Coming Elections
Cameron W. Barr, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
The turnout was lower than expected, but the message was clear: A majority of Okinawans want the US troops in their midst to go someplace else.
Yesterday Okinawan voters overwhelmingly favored a proposition that called for a reduction of the US military presence in their chain of tropical islands.
The islands form the most southerly of Japan's prefectures and host more than 28,000 US troops - forces considered key to Japanese security and the stability of East Asia. Just under 60 percent of the prefecture's registered voters participated, a figure that may have disappointed some critics of the US bases who had predicted a turnout 70 percent or higher. But the critics could not have been upset with the rate of voters who favored the referendum's proposition - roughly 89 percent. The result means that slightly more than half of the prefecture's 912,000 voters, regardless of whether or not they went to the polls yesterday, want a reduced US presence. Spurred by outrage over the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen last September, Washington and Tokyo have worked hard in recent months to ease Okinawan frustrations. Last April President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to reduce the amount of land the Americans use in Okinawa by 20 percent and to close a controversial Marine air station. Some of these efforts require relocating facilities to other areas in Okinawa or moving them to other parts of Japan - steps that are causing as much controversy as they are intended to resolve. But the result of the referendum shows that the base issue is "one of the problems that the government has failed to deal with successfully," says Tetsumi Takara, a law professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa. The referendum is posing an immediate challenge for Mr. Hashimoto, who is trying to decide on the timing of a general election, which must be held by mid-1997. Recent news reports have said that the election could be held as early as the end of October. Hashimoto has made resolving the Okinawan frustrations a priority partly in order to increase his stature as an international statesman and partly to maintain the unity of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party as elections approach. Some members of the LDP reportedly believe the Okinawans should not be blatantly forced to accept the US presence. …