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Plan to Cut US Marines Presence on Okinawa May Do Little to Ease Islanders' Concerns


The United States and Japan are discussing plans to move 8,000 U.S. Marines off the island of Okinawa. Both governments hope the move will ease conflicts with islanders, who complain that U.S. bases take up too much land and that troops too often cause trouble.

The refrain being heard again this month on Okinawa is a familiar one. The mayor of the town of Ginowan, Yoichi Iha, is among those shouting it the loudest. At a recent rally Iha told thousands of Okinawans that it is time for all U.S. forces to leave Japan. The mayor says a plan by the U.S. military to remove up to 8,000 Marines off the island is not sufficient.

When the subject of the U.S. military on Okinawa is raised, the focus often is on the Marines, who make up about 13,000 out of the nearly 25,000 American troops on the island.

Their number makes the Marines a high-profile target for criticism. Among other complaints: the Marine bases take up valuable land on a small island and that noise from aircraft and weapons disturbs civilian communities. Okinawans also worry about crime committed by Marines and military aircraft accidents.

There are about 54,000 U.S. troops throughout Japan, and a nearly equal number of family members and American base employees. The troops originally came in World War II. They remain, the Japanese and U.S. governments say, to protect Japan, maintain peace and stability in Asia and allow the U.S. to be ready to respond quickly to any threat.

But Okinawans have long been bitter over the fact that their prefecture, one of the country's smallest, holds so many U.S. troops.

Marine officials say a "silent majority" of Okinawans supports the U.S. presence. But over the years, several high-profile crimes and other incidents involving Marines, including rapes and the crash of a Marine helicopter into a university building, have fueled public anger.

To ease that anger, junior Marines these days have a midnight curfew on Okinawa. As U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer told Okinawans during a recent speech here, the military has a zero tolerance policy for any crimes committed by its personnel on the island. "Americans are not here to prey upon the innocent," he said. "We are here to protect the innocent."

While U.S. officials say even one offense is too many, they point to Okinawa police statistics that say only one percent of all crimes on the island are committed by Americans, although they make up four percent of the population.

But, for many Okinawans, the presence of so many young men, who are trained for war but have little understanding of Japanese culture, is intimidating.

Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Ridderhoff, the deputy planning officer for the Marine Corps on Okinawa, says such fears are unfounded. "I don't think you can associate a specific type of unit with a proclivity towards incidents because actually the units that come here that are held up as combat units are kept active for most of their time training and they're also mainly at the northern part of the island," said Ridderhoff.

Northern Okinawa is sparsely populated and offers few off-base attractions and almost no interaction with islanders.

Under the force realignment plan Japan and the U.S. are discussing, about 8,000 Marines will be moved off Okinawa, mostly administrative and support personnel. Most of the combat troops will remain. In part that is because the U.S. Defense Department thinks it is important to keep ground troops on the island as a deterrence against any threat.

The realignment plan also includes changes to some bases on Japan's main islands, bringing several hundred more U.S. Army troops to the country and moving a Marine Corps air station from a crowded urban area on Okinawa to a less developed area.

The Marines try to emphasize the positive aspects of their presence here. In addition to helping defend Japan under a bilateral defense pact, the force is ready to respond to conflicts and natural disasters in a region covering half of the Earth's surface.

Marines volunteer in local schools, raise funds for charity and participate in other activities to interact with Okinawa communities.

The Marine bases on Okinawa employ more then 4,200 local civilians and contribute an estimated $770 million to the island's economy.

Former Okinawa Governor Masahide Ota, now a member of Japan's Upper House of Parliament, says the island can do without all that. "If those areas which are used by the U.S. military are returned to the local people and if we could re-utilize the area, we could guarantee 10 times more employment," he said.

The troop realignment plan is to be finalized this month. But the Japanese and U.S. negotiators have differences in how they want to accomplish the plan. Even if they agree on the details, many Okinawa politicians say they are likely to struggle to win the support of islanders.

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