Okinawa igniting rage against US bases in Japan

Anger has been spreading beyond those island residents who oppose the US bases

The US military has sent the first batch of a sophisticated but accident-plagued new aircraft to an air base on Okinawa, going forward with its planned deployment despite unexpectedly fierce opposition by islanders and warnings that any crash could threaten the huge US military presence on the island.

The first six of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from another base on mainland Japan where they had undergone test flights, the Japanese Defence Ministry said. Another six of the ungainly-looking aircraft were due to arrive this week at the base, in the centre of the crowded city of Ginowan.

The United States is counting on the deployment to serve as part of the Obama administration’s plan to increase the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and offset the growing strength of China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The Osprey – whose tilting rotors allow it to take off like a helicopter but fly like a fixed-wing aircraft – flies four times as far as the Vietnam-era helicopters it is replacing, putting the more than 15,000 Marines on Okinawa within reach of potential hot spots like Taiwan and a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

The Japanese government has backed the deployment, apparently at least partly out of hopes that it will help deter China’s recently assertive claims to those islands, which Japan controls. The US Defence Department says it has displayed sensitivity to local feelings by delaying the Osprey deployment as long as possible, making Marines there the last combat units to get the new aircraft, which is in use elsewhere in the world.

However, both governments are facing an unusually strong push-back from many of the 1.4 million residents on Okinawa, including a large demonstration and acts of civil disobedience of a sort not seen here in decades. A rally last month drew as many as 100,000 people, the largest anti-base demonstration on the island since a similar-size one that followed the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen in 1995.

On the surface, the outrage has been fuelled by concerns about the safety of the aircraft, which had a troubled development and suffered two crashes earlier this year. In the lobby of the Ginowan City Hall, a large display warned of the risks by describing a 1959 crash by a US jet that killed 17 people, including 11 schoolchildren.

But Okinawan political leaders and analysts said the issue had become a lightning rod for deeper grievances over how the US and Japan have imposed what islanders see as an excessive base burden on this tropical island.

Anger has spread beyond those island residents who oppose the base from the left.

Even conservatives, who have traditionally backed Japan’s postwar security alliance with the United States, warn that Okinawans could now turn violently against not just Futenma but also the entire US presence.

Building up anger

“Anger has been building up like hot magma beneath the surface, and the Osprey could be what finally causes an eruption,” said Takeshi Onaga, the mayor of Naha, the Okinawan capital city, and a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. “If they force the Osprey onto us, this could lead to a collapse of the US-Japan alliance.”

Onaga and others warned that the US was taking a huge risk in deploying the Osprey. A crash, they said, could lead to violent protests not seen on this normally peaceful island since 1970, when rioters opposed to the United States’ control of the island at the time burned cars on the streets of Naha.

The mayor and other local leaders also questioned whether the Japanese government would be up to the task of quelling unrest that could reach a scale not seen nationally since almost that long ago: the violent opposition to construction of Narita Airport outside Tokyo in the 1970s. “There is so much anger wrapped into this one aircraft,” warned Moriteru Arasaki, a former president of Okinawa University. “Once it is uncorked, it could turn against all bases.”

Of course, opposition to the US bases is nothing new in Okinawa, and it remains unclear how far the protesters would actually go. However, most analysts in Japan and the United States seem to agree that Okinawan anger is reaching levels unseen in recent times. They say this has put the US in a difficult position.

“You cannot let politics dictate what platform you use,” said James Schoff, a former senior adviser on East Asia affairs for the Office of the Secretary of Defence. “But in this environment, an accident is going to be like setting a match to a tinderbox.”

Japanese officials say they have tried to allay Okinawan concerns by conducting their own inquiries into the recent crashes, with the inquiries accepting the Pentagon’s findings that pilot error was to blame. During a visit to Tokyo last month, Defence Secretary Leon E Panetta signed an agreement to allow the Osprey to fly in Japan with restrictions aimed at ensuring safety.

However, those efforts have failed to appease the island’s deeply rooted anger. With more than half of the 50,000 US military personnel in Japan stationed here, many Okinawans say their island remains a virtual military colony, long after the US returned the island to Japan in 1972.

Okinawans say this has led to increased awareness about the discrimination that they say Okinawa has suffered since Japan seized their once-independent kingdom in the 1870s.

“The Osprey made us realise that we are still not treated as fully Japanese,” said Masaharu Kina, the speaker of the Okinawan prefectural assembly.

The sense of alienated outrage adds to the longstanding anger over Futenma, which has become a symbol of the Japanese failure to ease Okinawa’s burden. Tokyo and Washington still have yet to put into place a 16-year-old deal to relocate the base from Ginowan, which was originally signed in response to the 1995 rape case.

Three years ago, frustrations reached a new high when the left-leaning Yukio Hatoyama, then the prime minister of Japan, raised hopes by promising to move the base off Okinawa altogether, only to renege in the face of domestic and US pressure.

Okinawan emotions remain raw at what was seen as Hatoyama’s betrayal. Okinawa got a taste of civil disobedience over the weekend, when police officers with riot shields used tow trucks to remove more than a dozen vehicles that protesters had used to briefly seal off the Futenma base’s three gates – something opponents say they have not tried before.

“If they impose that dangerous thing on us, then all hell will break loose,” said Satoru Oshiro, 48, a labour union employee who joined a dozen protesters to use two vans to block the base’s Nodake Gate on a recent morning. “Enough is enough.”

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