Protesters rally against U.S. bases in Okinawa

Landowner balks at renewing lease

March 31, 1996
Web posted at: 10:15 a.m. EST (1515 GMT)

TOKYO (CNN) -- About 90,000 protesters gathered in Japan Sunday to complain about the United States' military presence on Okinawa as the U.S. lease on a small piece of base land was about to expire.

The lease on 236 square meters (2,550 square feet) inside a U.S. naval communications facility was to expire at midnight Sunday (1500 GMT).

Opposition to the bases grew after the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl last September by three U.S. servicemen. Japanese anger has intensified over central government plans to force reluctant landowners to renew leases for base land.

Japanese authorities remained on heightened alert around the bases, and nearly 1,500 riot police were sent in to quell any possible violence by local residents and supporters of the island-prefectures' stance.

But, protests in Okinawa were peaceful, said Jun Yogi, an official of the prefectural police.

At an additional cost of 70 million yen ($700,000), the police, one-third of whom are from mainland Japan, have constructed a security fence around a U.S. military base to keep out protesters and landowners vowing to repossess their property.

The demonstrators in Tokyo shouted, "Give Mr. Chibana his land back," "Down with the security treaty," and "Clinton, give back the bases." President Clinton is scheduled to visit Tokyo April 16-18, and the issue of the Okinawa bases is on the agenda.

Shoichi Chibana is refusing to renew the U.S. lease for the 236-square-meter plot of land he owns, which would make the military personnel trespassers after midnight.

"We've kept our heads down long enough, now its time to do something about our land," Chibana told reporters in Okinawa's capital of Naha on Sunday during a rally by several hundred people.

However, officials say that, in reality, the central government has the right to order landowners to renew the leases, because of its power of eminent domain.

Japan has argued that the needs of the state outweigh the desires of individuals, so the central government can force the landowners to renew the military leases.

It will take several weeks for the Japan's legal system to catch up with the mandate. Until then, the United States will have to face the angry scrutiny of Okinawans grown tired of the American presence on their island.

The real reason for the Okinawan protests of the U.S. military presence involves a political power struggle between Okinawa and Japan.

Since the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japanese rule in 1972, local residents have complained of unfair treatment by the central government in Tokyo, claiming specifically that Japan has ignored Okinawa's economic and social needs.

The U.S. bases have been caught in the crossfire, with both the expiration of the leases and the intensified emotional response to the rape serving as rallying points for Okinawan locals.

With the impending summit between Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto, Okinawans are hoping to embarrass Japan and force the parent nation to lose international credibility.

Japan is standing firm and vowing to uphold all tenets of the 1960 Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, including the provisions for U.S. facilities in Japan.

Despite the protests and tough rhetoric, Okinawans are likely to go along with Japanese mandates, for the most part. Of the 32,000 landowners with plots used by the U.S. military on Okinawa, 2,937 are refusing to renew their leases, affecting about 10 percent of the American base land there.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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