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Okinawans' lives still threatened due to heavy concentration of US military bases

Protesters raise their fists in the direction of the coastal area where land reclamation work is being carried out in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on May 14, 2017. (Mainichi)

YOMITAN, Okinawa -- May 15 marks the 45th anniversary of Okinawa's return to Japan after decades of U.S. military rule, but the lives of local residents remain under threat due to the heavy concentration of U.S. bases in this island prefecture.

"Let's unite together to demand a halt to all military training!" cried protesters in front of the gates to the U.S. Army Torii Station in the village of Yomitan in Okinawa's main island on the evening of May 11. About 300 locals joined the event to protest the U.S. military's vehicle transport training in March and April, where helicopters carry vehicles suspended from the aircraft.

Behind the Yomitan villagers' rage lies an incident in 1965 when Okinawa was still under U.S. control. On June 11, 1965, then 10-year-old Takako Tanahara was killed after she was struck by a trailer used in a U.S. military parachute drill. The trailer missed its target and fell onto an area near a house, hitting Tanahara as a result.

"We villagers cannot forget the heartbreaking, tragic incident that took a little girl's life," Yomitan Mayor Denjitsu Ishimine said during the rally.

Takemasa Gaja protests against U.S. military bases in the Okinawa Prefecture village of Yomitan on May 11, 2017. (Mainichi)

The village's senior citizens' club federation chairman, Takemasa Gaja, 73, expressed his determination to have parachute drills halted, saying, "It cannot happen again. We have to raise our voices." He also reflected on the time when Okinawa was returned to Japan after 27 years of U.S. military rule. "I was happy that we were recognized as Japanese," he said.

Still, 36 percent of the village's land area is occupied by U.S. military bases today. And it is not just Yomitan that sees dangerous military training being repeatedly carried out, just like in the old days during U.S. military rule.

On May 10 this year, the U.S. military conducted a parachute drill at night at the Kadena Air Base, which is surrounded by residential homes, despite the prefectural government's demand that such training be halted. Japan and the United States agreed under the 1996 Special Action Committee on Okinawa that parachute drills would be held on the island of Ie, just west of Okinawa's main island, but the U.S. military went ahead with the May 10 training drill without briefing Japan on the matter prior to the exercise.

"The U.S. military has no restrictions on its actions and that has not changed to date," Gaja laments. "Social and capital infrastructure has certainly improved after Okinawa was returned to Japan, but I want people on the mainland to know that we Okinawans still live next to fences (that separate bases from other areas)."

Meanwhile, a rally against the U.S. base relocation was held on May 14 at a beach near the Henoko district of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago, the planned relocation site for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan. According to the organizers, an estimated 2,200 people joined the event, where they shouted, "We will not allow the construction of the new base!" The Japanese government started land reclamation work off Henoko at the end of April.

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