Okinawa votes for removal of US bases

Japanese disputes: Referendum embarrasses government while protests grow on territorial claims
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The Independent Online
In an unexpectedly decisive result which will embarrass the governments of Tokyo and Washington, voters in Okinawa yesterday called overwhelmingly for the reduction of American military bases on their islands.

The referendum in the island prefecture, 900 miles south-west of Tokyo, came almost exactly a year after the gang rape of a local schoolgirl by United States servicemen which galvanised long-standing opposition to the presence of nearly 30,000 US troops in Okinawa. The broad result had never been in doubt, but there was speculation that a low turn-out would undermine demands by the Okinawan governor for the return of land occupied by the US for the last 51 years.

In fact, slightly less than 60 per cent of the 900,000 eligible voters turned out for the poll. But 89 per cent of them voted for the proposition that the number of bases should be reduced and that a bilateral agreement which grants legal privileges to US servicemen should be revised. The referendum has no legal force, but it will affect not just the bases, but also the future of Japan's coalition government.

The Okinawan bases are maintained by the Japanese government as part of its obligations under the US-Japan security treaty, the keystone of American security policy in Asia and the Pacific. Ever since the rape last year, the government has faced escalated demands for a more equitable distribution of bases: three-quarters of them are in Okinawa, despite the fact that it accounts for only 0.6 per cent of Japan's land area.

Matters came to a head earlier this year when the governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, refused to sign documents mandating the renewal of leases for small patches of land within the bases. For several months, to the embarrassment of both governments, the Americans have been in illegal occupation of tiny parts of their own installations.

At the end of last month, after a series of legal actions by the central government, the supreme court in Tokyo upheld a ruling ordering Mr Ota to sign the documents. On Tuesday, Mr Ota will meet Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the biggest of the three coalition parties.

Mr Hashimoto said last week that he would wait until after the meeting to decide on the timing of the next election, which must be held before next summer. He is believed to favour an early date, possibly at the end of October. But if Mr Ota continues to hold out, the government may be forced to draft special legislation to speed up the process of securing the land, an unpopular move which could cost it votes and alienate its coalition partners.

Spokesmen for all three coalition parties last night acknowledged the outcome of the referendum and promised to bring about more cutbacks. "We take this seriously," said Koichi Kato, the LDP's secretary-general. "I think the government will further strive for base cuts."