In the biggest political rally Okinawa has ever seen, tens of thousands of Japanese on Saturday demanded that the U.S. military slash its bases, and the southern island's governor hinted that base operations could be disrupted if changes are not made soon.
"For 50 years, the Okinawan people have been forced to cooperate with the [American] bases. Now, it is the turn of the United States and the Japanese government to cooperate with the Okinawan people. If not, [base operations] won't go as they have until now," Gov. Masahide Ota told the rally, which was precipitated by last month's rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl.
Three U.S. servicemen indicted in the crime are scheduled to go on trial in Okinawa on Nov. 7. If convicted, they face sentences ranging from four years' to life imprisonment.
Some Okinawan landowners have already refused to renew leases on plots used for U.S. bases, and Ota has refused to sign orders to requisition the land. Other disruptions to base operations could come from increased protests against live artillery shellings over a state highway, parachute practices, noise from aircraft, military use of a civilian harbor and dozens of other military activities conducted in the midst of the island's 1 million people.
Sponsors of Saturday's rally said 85,000 people filled a park in the city of Ginowan, while police put the turnout at 58,000. Both figures are larger than the 50,000 target that sponsors had set and made the event the biggest protest rally in history in Okinawa, the site of the last bloody ground battle of World War II.
Although the United States ended its postwar occupation of mainland Japan in 1952, it continued to rule Okinawa prefecture until 1972 to safeguard a vast American military complex that occupies about 20% of the island. Of the 45,500 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, about 23,700 are in Okinawa.
Saturday's rally was peaceful, although one woman jumped on the stage and tried to burn an American flag. She was quickly overpowered by organizers.
In comments televised on Tokyo news shows, high school senior Kiyoko Nakamura told the protesters that she studies at a school "where we never know when an airplane will crash." She made a plea to the United States and Japanese governments to "give us back a quiet Okinawa--a place where there are no military bases and no tragedies, but only peace."
Despite calls from individual speakers for abolition of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and removal of all bases from Okinawa, participants at the rally adopted a moderate resolution calling for compensation for the girl who was raped, a reduction in land used by the bases, a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement that sets the rules for American troops stationed in Japan, and measures to improve the discipline of U.S. military forces.
The resolution did, however, condemn the United States for an "occupation mentality" that permits "brutal crimes." It also criticized Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama for "weak-kneed diplomacy" in dealing with the United States in the aftermath of the rape.
Negotiations have now started in Tokyo in which the Japanese government is seeking the authority to take American criminal suspects into custody without waiting for an indictment, as the Status of Forces Agreement now requires. Japanese officials also want new promises from the United States to cooperate in reducing the size of its bases.
The rally was unique in that it brought together more than 300 political, business and social organizations of all shades of belief. All the political parties in the Okinawa Assembly--including the Liberal Democratic Party, the traditional champion of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty--joined in sponsoring the protest. City and town governments, labor unions and business organizations served on the organizing committee.
Wataru Kubo, secretary general of Murayama's Socialist Party, headed a delegation of Socialist members of Parliament who flew from Tokyo to attend.
The governor's refusal to requisition land for the bases was designed to force the national government to act on years of requests from successive Okinawan governments to scale back the bases. But in an attempt to restrain rising emotions, Murayama has said he will try to persuade Ota to sign the requisition documents rather than signing them himself, as he is empowered to do as the prime minister.
The Sept. 4 rape shocked Japan and spurred denunciations of the U.S. military presence in the country. Murayama has said he wants to end the turmoil before President Clinton visits Japan next month. But the flare-up has already soured the cooperative atmosphere the two leaders had hoped to create by reaffirming the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as a pact with new significance in the post-Cold War era.