Okinawan voters seek to shrink U.S. bases 90% favor reduction in number of troops

vote is nonbinding

September 09, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NAHA, Okinawa -- In a referendum aimed at sending a message to Washington and Tokyo, Okinawans voted yesterday by a ratio of 10 to 1 in favor of a reduction in the U.S. military bases on this island in the south of Japan.

With virtually all of the ballots counted late last night, more than 90 percent of voters said there were too many U.S. troops on their southern islands, and that an agreement giving the troops special legal status should be changed.

"For half a century, our rights have been stepped on," said Sotoya Gakiya, after casting his vote near Kadena Air Base, the Air Force's largest outpost in the Pacific. "At least now we have had a chance to give our opinion."

The message was somewhat muted by a low voter turnout of 59.5 percent. The Okinawan government and other opponents of the bases had mounted an energetic campaign to get people to vote, saying a high turnout would be needed for the ballot to be influential.

Okinawa's governor, Masahide Ota, a leading opponent of the bases, argued that despite the low turnout, 53 percent of the 910,000 registered voters favored the base reduction.

"It's the first time Okinawan people have displayed their will on their own," he said at a news conference last night.

It is not clear how much impact the results will have. The referendum is not legally binding, and the bases are a national matter, not a local matter, to be decided by the governments of the United States and Japan.

Officials of both governments say they knew even before the referendum that Okinawans disliked the bases, and in April officials had proposed a plan to close some of them, including a noisy helicopter field.

"The issues are there anyway, whether or not there is a referendum," a U.S. official said before the balloting. He and a Japanese official said the preliminary base reduction plan was not likely to change much by the time the final plan is issued in November.

Still, the results yesterday suggest that people in Okinawa are not satisfied with the reductions announced so far. The plebiscite will also serve to keep the spotlight on the issue and keep up the pressure on Washington and Tokyo, some analysts say.

Ota will meet with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto tomorrow and is expected to use the vote as a bargaining chip.

The vote follows a year of increased tensions between Okinawans and the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed on the islands. Such tensions are endemic, but erupted into the worst anti-base demonstrations ever after three U.S. servicemen raped a 12-year-old girl on Sept. 4 last year.

The Okinawan islands have been a major U.S. military bastion since World War II, when Okinawa's main island was devastated in the final land battle of the war. Okinawa's bases were a major staging point during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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