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Okinawans want U.S. soldiers out

troops

September 8, 1996
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EDT

TOKYO (CNN) -- By a nine to one margin, Okinawans approved a measure to cut back the massive U.S. military presence on the southern Japanese island. (map)

The vote is likely to complicate U.S. Japanese relations as it bolsters demands to remove the American military presence from one of its most strategic bases in Asia. There are about 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan.

While the message of the non-binding referendum was clear, its overall significance is not. Voter turnout by Japanese standards was low, at about 60 percent of the 912,00 eligible voters.

The Okinawa election commission said that 89.1 percent of those voting had supported the military-cut initiative and only 8.5 percent against it. The remaining ballots were spoiled.

That could dampen the anti-American message, as voter turnout is considered a key factor in how the national government will handle the issue.

Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who strongly favors curtailment of the U.S. military presence there, was one of the first to cast his ballot. He has said that the number of voters would influence his base reduction strategy.

Ota

Advocates of shutting down the U.S. bases had hoped for a 70 percent turnout, but Ota was still euphoric over the lopsided victory, and delivered a tough warning to Tokyo and Washington.

The results, said Ota, should be clear to "those in the U.S. Congress who still feel like they own Okinawa."

On the national level, the referendum has serious implications for Japanese politics. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto is in the awkward position of having to cope with three divergent parties on the Okinawa issue: His own coalition government, the Okinawans and the United States.

sign

The U.S. seeks to maintain a military presence in Asia, particularly as a counterweight to the expansion of Chinese influence in the Far East.

The national Japanese government has supported the U.S. policy. But Okinawans have resisted the presence of American Armed Forces, with opposition galvanized by the rape last September of a 12 year old girl by three U.S servicemen.

The island's bloody history is also a factor. The Okinawa islands were captured by U.S. troops in the closing months of World War II after brutal fighting and heavy casualties on both sides. They remained under American control until 1972.

Hashimoto will meet with Ota Tuesday to discuss the future of the American military on the island.

choppers

Currently, the U.S. and Japan are hammering out the details of an agreement made in April, calling for a 20 percent cut in military facilities on Okinawa. And while the U.S. kept a low profile during the recent elections, the results will likely influence future negotiations on base reductions.

CNN correspondent May Lee in Tokyo and Reuters contributed to this report.


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