NAHA (REUTERS, AFP) - Tens of thousands of people gathered in sweltering heat on Japan’s Okinawa island on Sunday (June 19) in one of the biggest demonstrations in two decades against US military bases, following the arrest of an American suspected of murdering a local woman.
The protest marked a new low for the United States and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in their relations with the island and threatens plans to move the US Marines Futenma air station to a less populous part of the island. Organisers said 65,000 people attended the rally at a park in central Naha.
A former Marine employed as a civilian base worker allegedly raped and murdered the young local woman in April.
The case has intensified longstanding opposition to the bases – a key part of the US-Japan security alliance – on the sub-tropical southern outpost, a popular holiday destination for Japanese and, increasingly, China and other Asian countries.
The demonstration, held at an athletics park under scorching heat with many in attendance shielding themselves under umbrellas, began with a moment of silence for Shimabukuro and a message from her father.
“Why my daughter, why was she killed,” said the message, read on his behalf. “My thoughts are the same as those of all the bereaved families that have met with suffering up to now.”
Some in the crowd, the size of which could not immediately be confirmed, held signs in Japanese reading, “Our anger is past its limit,” and “Pull out the Marines.”
“I’m filled with sadness and I really don’t want any more victims,” said participant Chihiro Uchimura, 71. “As long as there are US military bases this kind of incident will continue to happen,” she said.
A similar demonstration was being held simultaneously outside the Japanese parliament in Tokyo. Protesters also want the scrapping of plans by Washington and Tokyo to move a major US Marine facility in the centre of the island to pristine waters off the northern coast.
Okinawa’s governor Takeshi Onaga, who is attending the rally, opposes the plan and instead wants Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in the middle of a crowded city, moved off the island altogether. He has revoked approval for work on the facility, though Washington and Tokyo vow to push forward.
The idea to move the base was sparked by the 1995 rape by three American personnel of a 12-year-old girl and though the project was set to have been completed years ago it remains held up by local opposition and legal maneuvering.
“Japan is still a military colony of the United States,” said teacher Noboru Kitano, 59, standing at an observation point overlooking the Futenma base, widely seen as a danger to nearby residents. “This base symbolises that.”
The roots of the presence goes back to the end of World War II when Okinawa was the site of a battle between Japan and the US, followed by a 27-year American occupation.
High-profile crimes have sparked large-scale protest rallies before on Okinawa, now considered a strategic linchpin supporting the US-Japan alliance, but where pacifist sentiment runs high.
In 1995, tens of thousands rallied following the rape of the girl, which prompted Washington to pledge to reduce the US footprint on the fortified island. Nearly 100,000 people joined a protest in 2010 against the construction of the new base off the northern coast.
US officials have grown increasingly concerned that the behaviour of its troops on the island could jeopardise support among Japanese for the security relationship and have imposed restrictions including on off-base alcohol consumption after an intoxicated sailor injured two locals while driving this month.
President Barack Obama received the equivalent of a diplomatic tongue-lashing over the death of the 20-year-old woman from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a visit to Japan last month.
Obama called it a “tragedy” and expressed “deepest regrets” at a joint press conference.