Yankee go home, or to Honshu Okinawa vote: Islanders want reduced U.S. military presence.

September 10, 1996

THE REFERENDUM to reduce the U.S. military presence on poor little Okinawa was a cry from the heart of people who believe themselves second-class citizens of Japan. It may weaken Japan's coalition government because the leading Liberal Democratic Party shows no real sympathy for Okinawans on this issue, while its junior partner, the Social Democratic Party, does.

Only three-fifths of eligible Okinawans voted, which is low for a Japanese election. But nine-tenths of those favored reduction of U.S. forces and reduced legal status for them, which is high for any referendum. Gov. Masahide Ota sees vindication of his campaign to get all U.S. forces off the island by the year 2015, and strengthened in his demands on Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

Most people in East Asia want U.S. forces to remain as a stabilizing presence that helps keeps China, North Korea, Russia and Japan itself relatively civil toward neighbors. Okinawa, the island far south of the main Japanese archipelago that counts as part of the homeland, is the ideal strategic location.

The catch is that three-fourths of U.S. bases and three-fifths of U.S. service personnel in Japan are on Okinawa, out of sight and mind to most Japanese. They are an enormous and often abrasive presence to the islanders, as reaction to the rape of a school girl last year showed.

Okinawa is the poorest and most remote of Japan's 47 prefectures. It was also the only Japanese island that suffered U.S. invasion and fighting during World War II, rather than occupation afterward. Okinawans want Americans dispersed in Japan. If the Yankee presence is so vital for security, why doesn't the prosperous main island of Honshu take more? Okinawans also want more job-creating investment from Tokyo. If they can't have one thing, they certainly want the other.

The non-binding referendum, the first prefecture-wide in a growing populist ferment, was a cry for more sympathetic attention from the capital. It is a little less anti-American and a little more intra-Japanese than meets the eye. Even so, it can only weaken confidence in the U.S. presence until the Okinawan grievances have been constructively addressed by Tokyo.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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