Tokyo fears wave of Okinawan anger

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The Independent Online


In the southernmost reaches of Japan this week, a fable was enacted which may offer consolation to the struggling coalition government of Tomiichi Murayama, the Prime Minister.

Deep below the sea close to Kikaijima, a tiny sub-tropical island 800 miles from Tokyo, there was a big earthquake. It was 6.7 on the open-ended Richter scale, powerful enough to split concrete and upset fishing boats. The island is sparsely populated. None of its inhabitants was hurt, and concerns for their welfare were soon supplanted by a greater fear - that a devastating tsunami, a seismic tidal wave caused by the submarine tremor, would spread outwards and strike mainland Japan. Urgent warnings were issued, beaches and ports evacuated and the forces mobilised. As the skies around the coast buzzed with television helicopters, the terrible wave arrived. It was four-and-a-half inches high.

South of Kikaijima lies the larger island of Okinawa, which suffered a metaphorical earthquake of its own six weeks ago. On 4 September, a 12-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three American servicemen. The island is dominated by 16 American bases. The rape provoked national uproar - at the crime itself, but above all at the very presence of the bases, which take up one fifth of the island, and impair its infrastructure and development.

A series of almost daily protests will climax today at a mass rally near a Marine camp; 50,000 Okinawans are expected to turn out. Mr Murayama and his ministers have offered sympathy, condemnation of the crime, but no concrete proposals to reduce the number of bases maintained by their government under the US-Japan Security Treaty. They appear to be hoping that, like this week's tsunami, the tidal wave will be no more than a ripple.

On Thursday, however, it claimed its first casualty when Noboru Hoshuyama, a senior Defence Ministry official, resigned. Mr Hoshuyama was head of the Defence Facilities Administration Agency, responsible for the maintenance of the US bases, and the leases on the land which they occupy. A small part of that land is rented forcibly from unwilling landlords; last month the Governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, announced that he would not sign documents commandeering it.

This was where Mr Hoshuyama's difficulties began. He flew down to Okinawa to reason with the Governor. But Mr Ota refused to see him. Back in Tokyo, Mr Hoshuyama recommended that court action be taken against the Governor, but Mr Murayama resisted. Last week, Mr Hoshuyama let his frustration get the better of him. "The business has been caused because the Prime Minister is stupid," he told a Cabinet official. "Tell him to act firmly with the law. If he does not, other countries will doubt whether Japan is democratic and law-abiding." Within 24 hours, he was clearing his desk.

Never a resolute prime minister, Mr Murayama is in a bind over the Okinawa affair. Temperamentally he must sympathise with Governor Ota: as leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), until recently he opposed the US- Japan Security Treaty on principle. But last June he formed a coalition with two conservative parties, and the SDP's pacifist principles were abandoned.