Okinawans reject U.S. base Japanese island residents vote against plan to build military helicopter facility

December 22, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TOKYO -- Voters in Okinawa dealt a sharp and unexpected blow yesterday to plans for an American military base there that Japan and the United States have been planning for more than a year.

The vote, the first referendum held in Japan about a proposed American military base, offered the spectacle of 16,000 voters in a remote Japanese town defying their prime minister and threats of economic punishment if they opposed the base. They have thrown into doubt a project that has been discussed and researched at length between the highest levels of U.S. and Japanese government.

The outcome of the referendum underscored the antipathy in Okinawa to U.S. military bases there. The vote also raised questions about the reliability of Japan in the American-Japanese security partnership, and it throws into uncertainty a widely hailed plan by the two governments to consolidate the U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

"This is every citizen's victory," said Yasuhiro Miyagi, an opponent of the bases. "We do not need bases. And we seek peace."

Okinawa is a subtropical chain of islands in the far south of Japan, the poorest part of the country. Although it accounts for less than 1 percent of Japanese land by area, three-quarters of U.S. military bases in Japan are concentrated there.

Public hostility to the American military presence surged in 1995 after three servicemen were arrested, and later convicted, for kidnapping and gang-raping a sixth-grade girl. For a time, officials worried that the rising anger might eventually force the eviction of the U.S. troops from Japan.

Although the hostility subsided in most of Japan, it is still considerable in Okinawa.

Last year, the United States and Japan announced a much-hailed plan to consolidate the American military presence in Okinawa and, in particular, to close a heliport called Futenma Air Station within seven years.

The Americans inserted language in the agreement, however, specifying that Futenma would be closed only after Japan had built an equivalent heliport somewhere else. Japanese and American planners eventually settled on an offshore base, to be built as an island 1,500 yards long and 300 yards wide, just off the Okinawa coast.

The nearby Okinawan town of Nago had misgivings, however, and decided to hold yesterday's referendum. The outcome is not legally binding, but Hashimoto painted himself into a corner by saying that he would not go ahead with the base if local people opposed it.

It is still possible that the central government will put more pressure on the citizens of Nago and sweeten the package in some way -- or else find another site for an offshore base. But this would take time and would add to the uncertainties about the American bases in Okinawa.

It may now be difficult to meet the timetable for closing Futenma Air Station.

The outcome was a surprise because the central government had put enormous pressure on Nago to go along with the plan for the offshore heliport. Cabinet officials suggested that Nago would get economic development funds if it approved the heliport but would be left to stagnate if it rejected the project.

Some 3,000 Japanese military officers from Okinawa were told to solicit support for the proposal in Nago, and hundreds of officials from a military agency went house to house in Nago to urge people to approve the heliport.

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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