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U.S. military bases set to be major issue in Okinawa Pref. Assembly election

URUMA, Okinawa -- Problems arising from the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa Prefecture are set to become a major issue in the prefectural assembly election campaign that kicked off on May 27, just over a week after the arrest of a U.S. military base contractor in connection with the murder of a local woman.

The election period begins as residents' grief and outrage have been stirred up once again over crimes committed repeatedly by U.S. military personnel and contractors in Okinawa in the 71 years since the end of World War II.

There are five candidates vying for four spots in Uruma, a city in central Okinawa Prefecture where the slain woman lived. The woman is believed to have been attacked from behind with a stick or pole by a former U.S. Marine while she was walking.

A candidate from an Okinawa prefectural ruling party supporting Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga -- who opposes the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to another site within the prefecture -- held a campaign launch ceremony in front of the candidate's office. The ceremony, attended by supporters, began with a moment of silence for the slain woman.

"This incident took place because there are bases here that have been forced upon us through national government policy," the candidate said. "The prefectural assembly passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of Marines from Okinawa. We cannot allow any more people to be sacrificed. I want to say 'no' to policies that violate the human rights of the Okinawan people."

A prefectural opposition candidate also held a ceremony marking the beginning of the campaign, telling the mostly conservative crowd, "I'd like to help make Okinawa a place where people can have dreams and hopes by promoting the Okinawa railway project."

Uruma Mayor Toshio Shimabukuro listed planned construction projects of public facilities, saying, "What's important is who has closer ties to the national government. Please support candidates who will contribute to the city's development." Neither the candidate nor the mayor addressed the recent murder. A campaign official said, "A reorganization and reduction of bases is necessary, but the recent incident must not be used in the election."

Voters, meanwhile, showed great interest in the U.S. military base issue.

"I still remember the horrors of the war," said Mitsuko Ishikawa, an 84-year-old Uruma resident. "I feel sorry for the woman who died. We don't need the bases anymore. I want anti-base voices in the prefectural assembly to grow stronger."

Seiei Agena, 87, also of Uruma, said, "Every time there's an incident, we're told, 'It won't happen again.' I worked at U.S. military facilities for many years, so I'm very torn, but I'll listen to the candidates' speeches carefully before making my decision."

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