Thousands protest against US bases on Japan's Okinawa island

The rape and murder of a Japanese woman by a former US marine led to protests against US military presence on Okinawa island.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Protesters at a rally in Naha against US military presence on Okinawa island after the rape and killing of a woman in which a former US marine is a suspect.

Tens of thousands of people came out in Naha, Tokyo on Sunday to protest against the heavy US military presence on Japan's Okinawa island, weeks after the arrest of a US base worker - a former US marine - over suspicion of the rape and murder of a local woman in April.

Twenty-year old Rina Shimabukuro had gone missing for several weeks before her body was found last month, sparking outrage in Japan.

Sunday's protest was attended by 65,000 people at a park in central Naha, said the organizers. The protesters demanded closure of all US military bases in Japan.

Tens of thousands of Japanese on Sunday protested the presence of US military bases on the southwestern island of Okinawa, many of them wearing black to mourn the rape and killing of a local woman in which a former US Marine is a suspect.

"Japan is part of Japan and when you hurt your little finger the whole body feels pain. I want (Shinzo) Abe (Japan's prime minister) to feel Okinawa's pain," said Shigenori Tsuhako, 70, who came to the event because his grand daughter is the same age as the 20-year old murdered woman.

The incident of a local woman's rape and murder has fueled people's long-standing opposition to the presence of US military bases in Japan as part of a US-Japan security agreement signed in 1960. The southwestern island hosts 50,000 US nationals including 30,000 military personnel and civilian contractors.

The opposition to the US military's footprint on the island began in 1995 when a 12-year old school girl was raped by three US military personnel. The incident triggered mass demonstrations and the US and Japan agreed in 1996 to close the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the middle of a densely populated city.

Plan to relocate US base opposed

The plan to relocate the US base to a less populated site of the Okinawa island has been on hold because residents near the proposed relocation site oppose the move, worrying about noise, pollution and crime.

"All US bases in Japan should close. I want Abe to listen to what the people in Okinawa are saying," said Ryoko Shimabukuro, a 28-year-old government worker at the protest.

Okinawa assembly members against the plan won a majority in the prefectural assembly election this month, providing support for Okinawa Governor's plan to have the base move elsewhere.

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga while speaking to the crowd in Naha today, said he would fight to have those US Marines moved off the island.

US military announces 30-day period of mourning

Last month's arrest of the US civilian worker prompted the US military to announce a 30-day period of mourning for the victim and restrict off-base drinking in a bid to assuage local anger.

But relations frayed further with the subsequent arrest of a US sailor on Okinawa on suspicion of drunk driving following a car crash.

People tweeted:

Strategic importance of Okinawa island

Okinawa is the site of some of the bloodiest fighting between the US and Japan in World War Two and it remained under American occupation until 1972. Around a fifth of it is still under US military control.

Lieutenant General Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the US Marines there, told Reuters on Saturday that Washington may be able to return a 10,000 acre (40.5 square km) tract of jungle early next year, which would be the biggest hand back since 1972.

Yet, with the United States and Japan looking to contain China's growing might in the East China Sea, the Okinawan island chain, stretching close to Taiwan, is becoming strategically more valuable to military planners.

TRTWorld and agencies