US in Okinawa minefield

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As recently as 18 months ago, Japan represented little more than a rest- stop on the itineraries of US defence secretaries. In the Philippines, the Navy had been ordered out of its Subic Bay base; in South Korea, GIs are occasionally beaten up by locals. The Japanese, though, were benevolent hosts: unpleasant incidents were few, and the government contributed a handsome sum to the maintenance of 45,000 troops.

This morning, William Cohen arrives for his first visit as Defence Secretary in a very different country. Everything changed in September 1995, when a girl in Okinawa was raped by three US serviceman. The crime, and what was seen as the Americans' lackadaisical response, ignited resentment of the US presence, on the island and throughout the country.

Mr Cohen's visit comes at a delicate time for the US military in Japan and for Tokyo's attempts to accommodate them to the satisfaction of its own people. The bases are maintained by the Japanese government as part of its obligations under the US-Japan Security Treaty, the keystone of America's Asian security policy. Three-quarters of them are on Okinawa: the barracks, ports and airfields take up a fifth of the area of the island.

Some 32,000 landowners gave over property, most of them willingly, for rent. But 3,000 of them refuse to co-operate. For years this made no difference: the island's governor signed an order forcing their compulsory use. But after the 1995 rape and the demonstrations it provoked, he refused.

On 14 May, the leases expire on 3,000 of these plots. Manyare tiny but they occupy crucial positions. The Japanese government has embarked on bureaucratic measures to regain control of the land but they are glacially slow. In the meantime, it faces a choice of changing the rules fast or putting its allies in the embarrassing position of being in illegal occupation of their own bases.

The Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, chose the first option and the amendment was approved by his Cabinet last week. Mr Cohen's visit, and a trip to Washington by Mr Hashimoto later this month, were meant to put the seal on the reconfiguration of the US-Japan military relationship forced by the Okinawa rape.

Economic help is in the offing for the Okinawans and the two sides have agreed to relocate a heliport on an offshore platform, reducing the area occupied by the bases. But the number of troops in Okinawa will remain more or less the same. As even Yukio Okamoto, Mr Hashimoto's special adviser on Okinawa, admitted, "It's the equivalent of pulling a nail out of Okinawa's chest, and driving it back into its stomach."

Local opinion has been appeased only partially by these measures, and the fragility of the situation has been emphasised over the past few months. Last year, a US plane accidentally ditched a live missile in the sea, and Okinawan opinion was inflamed when it emerged that uranium-tipped rounds had been used in firing exercises, in violation of local rules.

Last week, just as memories of the Okinawa rape were beginning to fade, a US sailor stationed near Tokyo was reported to have raped a Japanese. For a few hours there was a sense of deja vu. When it emerged the man had broken his girlfriend's collarbone rather than raped her, in Washington and Tokyo you could almost hear the sighs of relief.