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Okinawa Commemorates 30th Anniversary of Return to Japan - 2002-05-17

Residents of Okinawa this week mark the 30th anniversary of their islands' return to Japanese control. Okinawa remains Japan's poorest prefecture, and its inhabitants continue to have mixed feelings about the heavy U.S. military presence there.

Okinawa, a lush, subtropical string of islands, is known for its beautiful beaches and the 38 U.S. military installations there. In 1972, the islands reverted from American to Japanese control. For 27 years they were a U.N. protectorate under U.S. administration.

The U.S. took control after it won a fierce and bloody battle toward the end of World War II. More than 100,000 Okinawans, one-third of the population, perished, including numerous teenagers the Japanese conscripted.

For many Okinawans, bitter memories of the war color their views toward the Japanese government and the 25,000 U.S. troops based in the prefecture.

Among the Okinawans drafted in the war was Masahide Ota. Later he went to the United States for graduate school and became governor of Okinawa years after it reverted to Japanese control. He views the reversion anniversary as a somber occasion.

"It is not the time for rejoice for us. Some people may rejoice, not me. We have to think about deeply what has been done and not been done so far, and what should be in the future," he said.

Now 76-years-old and a member of Japan's Parliament, Mr. Ota campaigns tirelessly for the reduction of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa. The prefecture is the country's smallest, yet about half of the total U.S. force in Japan lives on Okinawa.

He and many other Okinawans want at least some of the U.S. bases transferred to the Japanese mainland. While the bases help support the local economy, several civil crimes by American soldiers have created tensions. In addition, Mr. Ota said many Okinawans believe that the troops are occupying their ancestral lands, a serious concern in a place where ancestor worship is part of the traditional religion.

"If the U.S. Japan [security] treaty is so important and people in the mainland think this is absolutely necessary, then they should share the burden and responsibility equally but they do not share," Mr. Ota said.

Tokyo has flooded Okinawa with billions of dollars in public works projects, in exchange for tolerating the troops. Okinawa has grown dependent on these handouts and its economy is the weakest of all of Japan's 47 prefectures. Unemployment is almost twice the national average, and tourism, its main industry, has suffered because of Japan's weak economy.

Keiichi Inamine, Okinawa's current governor, has said frequently that life for many Okinawans has improved somewhat thanks to the central government's largess. He notes that disparities between Okinawa and the rest of Japan are shrinking.

But on the 30th anniversary of Okinawa's return, he tells reporters that he will continue to ask Tokyo to consider cutting the number of U.S. facilities on Okinawa. He, too, has said the burden of the bases should be equally shouldered by all Japanese.

Some Okinawans want the bases to remain. Ryunosuke Megumi is a teacher and political commentator who thinks they play a crucial role in maintaining regional peace.

He said the U.S. presence is important for the security of Asia. But he says Japanese mainlanders and people in Okinawa do not understand that. He says the military insures regional safety, but some people think they are better protected without it.

U.S. officials said they have no plans to reduce the number of troops on Okinawa. But U.S. and Japanese officials have agreed to close a Marine Corps air station on central Okinawa island, and move it elsewhere on the island.

But a final agreement has proved elusive. The Okinawa government wants a 15 year limit on the U.S. use of a new facility. Washington rejects that idea, saying it is impossible to ensure that regional threats will not exist in 15 years.

Tokyo has been an outspoken supporter of Washington's war on terrorism since the September 11 attacks. Military analysts have said it is unlikely that Japan will pressure the United States to reduce the Okinawa bases anytime soon. Instead, Tokyo offers new incentives to promote local economic development.

Under a new law, Tokyo is creating special districts that offer tax breaks to financial and information technology companies that set up on Okinawa. The law also calls for cutting airfares between Okinawa and the rest of the country, and funding a science-oriented graduate school in the prefecture.

The new measures may help boost Okinawa's profile, but for many residents, they do not go far enough because they do not address the larger controversy of the U.S. troops based there.