NAHA, Japan (Reuters) - Chieko Sakihara would like the thousands of U.S. troops stationed on her home island of Okinawa to leave, but she’s not holding her breath.
“Ideals are ideals, but we have to be practical, and we know Okinawa is convenient if there’s a contingency in Asia,” said Sakihara, 46, chatting with a friend at the “American Village” shopping centre in the town of Chatan, where last month a U.S. Marine was arrested on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old girl.
The arrest of U.S. Marine Tyrone Hadnott, 38, sparked outrage on the southern Japanese island and stirred memories of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen that sparked huge anti-base protests and jolted the U.S.-Japan alliance.
“When I first heard of the incident, I felt intense anger and a feeling of powerlessness, and wondered how long will such things keep happening?,” Takeshi Onaga, the conservative mayor of the Okinawa capital of Naha, told Reuters in an interview.
Once an independent kingdom with a rich culture and its own language, Okinawa has long been trapped in a strategic triangle with Washington and Tokyo, 1,600 km (1,000 miles) to the north.
One third of the its population was killed in the bloody Battle of Okinawa in the final months of World War Two, after which the island was occupied by the United States until 1972.
With less than one percent of Japan’s land area, Okinawa hosts 75 percent of the U.S. bases in Japan, a burden many residents resent even as others rely on the bases for jobs.
But squabbling between conservative politicians and leftist opposition groups means a protest rally being planned for later this month could fall short of the massive demonstration in 1995 — an outcome some fear would send the wrong message to Tokyo.
“The people of the mainland will mistakenly think that ... Okinawa’s fervor has cooled and we have gone quiet and are accepting the bases, so they just can leave them all here,” Onaga said. “Then our anger will emerge later.”
Conservative politicians in Okinawa accept the argument that the U.S. military presence is strategically necessary.
“It’s leap of logic and impractical to link incidents such as this to opposition to the U.S. military bases,” Okinawa Vice Governor Zenki Nakazato told Reuters. “If we think calmly, the bases are here for the sake of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the defense of Japan and the security of northeast Asia.”
Some younger residents of Okinawa, who have grown up with the bases, see the U.S. presence as a familiar fact of life.
“There have been Americans here since before I was born,” said 19-year-old college student Rina Maezato as she sipped coffee at a Starbucks at the Chatan shopping centre. “That’s ok.”
The seemingly muted reaction has relieved Japanese and U.S. authorities, who are keen to limit diplomatic fallout.
“No incident like this is good, obviously, but I think the alliance is very strong,” said U.S. Consul General Kevin Maher.
Still, even conservatives warn that Okinawan anger over base-related crimes could grow into broader anti-base sentiment.
“If such incidents keep happening, anti-base sentiment will spread among Okinawans and there is a fear that it could lead to anti-American sentiment,” Nakazato said. “That is undesirable, so everything possible needs to be done to prevent reoccurrences.”
U.S. military authorities have promised tighter discipline, but the pledges ring hollow to some. “If the same thing happens next year, they will make the same promises,” Naha’s Onaga said.
Local ruling politicians say it’s essential to go ahead with a plan to consolidate the bases and shift key functions of the U.S. Marine’s Futenma air station from the crowded central city of Ginowan to the lightly populated coastal town of Nago.
Relocating Futenma is key to a broader plan to shift some 8,000 of the 13,000 Marines now on Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam to lighten the presence of the U.S. military on the Japanese island.
Nago authorities have agreed to the move but sticky details remain to be worked out, including how to protect a nearby bay.
Anti-base critics argue that the consolidation plans will only slightly reduce Okinawa’s burden for the U.S.-Japan security alliance, a pillar of Japan’s post-World War Two diplomacy.
“If it is absolutely necessary for the sake of national interests, the rest of Japan should share the burden,” said former Okinawa Governor Masahide Ota, an octogenarian veteran of the Battle of Okinawa. “Instead, they put the bases far away in Okinawa where they seem invisible. It’s unfair and undemocratic.”
Okinawa politicians are seeking revisions to a pact governing the status of the nearly 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan to give Japanese authorities greater legal jurisdiction — a demand so far rejected by Tokyo and Washington.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement, suspects need not be handed over to Japanese authorities until they are charged, although Washington has promised to favorably consider handing over suspects of serious crimes such as rape before indictment.
The pact was not an issue in the Hadnott case since the Marine was arrested off-base by Japanese police.
The U.S. military is now investigating whether to pursue a case after he was released to their custody when the girl dropped charges, possibly to escape the glare of public attention.
But advocates of revisions to the pact say changes are needed to persuade Okinawans to keep shouldering their heavy burden.
Any anti-base upsurge would be an unwelcome development for U.S. military planners, who say a presence on the island is vital to deterring regional threats such as that from North Korea.
“If you look at where Okinawa is positioned, it’s pretty much in the centre of the Asia-Pacific region,” said U.S. Army Colonel Mark Franklin, the Okinawa-based representative of the top U.S. military commander in Japan. “As long as we are required to maintain a peaceful, stable region, we will be here.”
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani