ITOMAN (Okinawa) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was heckled and met with cries of "Go home!" at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the bloody Battle of Okinawa yesterday, an unusual outburst in conservative Japan at such a highly choreographed event.
Residents of the southern island, which suffered Japan's only land battle in World War II and lost a third of its population, have long resented the fact that they must host tens of thousands of US troops and US military facilities covering 18 per cent of their island's area.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga and thousands of other Okinawans have rejected a proposal to move the US Marines' Futenma base to reclaimed land off the Henoko district in northern Okinawa, calling for it to be moved off Okinawa altogether.
Mr Onaga, who won an election late last year on the back of his opposition to the base move, told the gathering commemorating the end of the Battle of Okinawa that claimed roughly 200,000 lives - US and Japanese soldiers and civilians - that the opinion of Okinawans about the new base was clear.
"I strongly call on the government to not be bound by stubborn concerns and to change its policies to lighten our burden," he said.
As Mr Abe bowed in front of flowers honouring those who died in the battle known as the "Typhoon of Steel", an elderly man in a black beret pointed at him and hecklers shouted "Go home!"
The Premier told the crowd Japan had to continue to make efforts for world peace as the heckling continued. "The people of Okinawa are bearing a heavy burden for security with the concentration of US bases," he said. "We will continue to make every effort to lighten your burden," he added, without referring directly to Futenma.
The ceremony took place in Itoman, at the southern tip of Okinawa, near the spot where terrified islanders had jumped from cliffs or were pushed to their deaths in June 1945 on the orders of Imperial Army soldiers taught never to surrender.
Thousands of visitors, many of them survivors of the war, filed past black marble monuments inscribed with the names of those who died in the 82-day battle for the strategically placed island chain, to pray and leave flowers.
"It was innocent civilians who suffered," said survivor Takeko Kakazu, 97. "Seventy years have passed but the cruelty of the war stays with me."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE