For 'occupied' Okinawa the war is not over

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The Independent Online
Tokyo travel agents have a word for Okinawa: ekizochikku; the Japanese for "exotic". Every year 3 million people from all over the country visit the island prefecture, 600km (375 miles) south of the mainland, to enjoy all the things that the rest of Japan has not got.

This week, however, Okinawa has been contemplating the bloody invasion which ended 50 years ago, and its legacy - the American bases which dominate the islands. The "Bases Problem", as Okinawans refer to it, is clear on the map. The main island is long, irregular and thin, just 4 miles wide at its narrowest point. Dotted along it are fat pink blobs, representing 16 military bases and training grounds. Okinawa makes up only 0.6 per cent of Japan's total area, but three- quarters of the US forces' installations in Japan are concentrated here, accounting for 20 per cent of the island. The roads are lined for mile after mile with barbed wire, and it is rare to look into a sky that does not contain a jet or helicopter. The bases hold 28,000 soldiers, sailors, air force personnel, marines, and their families.

A poll carried out by a local paper this week found that 80 per cent of Okinawans wish they were somewhere else. Okinawa has the highest unemployment, the lowest per capita income, and the fastest-growing population of any Japanese prefecture. Most bases are off-limits to civilian traffic, hampering road and city planning; plans for a new civilian airport, to link Okinawa's lagging economy with booming south-east Asia, are complicated by the military's near-monopoly of air space.

The greatest fear is of a repeat of an incident 40 years ago, when hundreds of children were injured and a dozen killed when a jet crashed into their school. In 1990 Okinawa elected as governor Masahide Ota, a radical academic who has campaigned vigorously for the reduction and eventual elimination of the bases.

The basis of the Americans' presence is the Japan-America Security Treaty, the cornerstone of Pacific defence policy throughout the Cold War. Even without a Soviet threat, Okinawa's strategic qualities make it a desirable a base. As part of the treaty obligations, 63bn yen (pounds 474m) goes to owners of the commandeered property who are happy with the arrangement. But in generating wealth for a few, the bases prevent the expansion which would enrich the whole prefecture "Until Okinawans have the same income as the rest of Japan," says Governor Ota, "we cannot say that the war is over."