TOKYO (Reuters) - Thousands of Okinawans rallied on Sunday to protest crimes by U.S. troops and demand a smaller U.S. military presence on the southern Japanese island after last month’s arrest of a Marine on suspicion of raping a schoolgirl.
“Crimes and accidents due to the bases have happened over and over and Okinawa has protested with intense anger to both the U.S. and Japanese governments,” Kyodo quoted Okinawa City Mayor Mitsuko Tomon as telling a crowd gathered in heavy rain in the town of Chatan, where the February incident occurred.
“But each time, our voices have been trampled and there has been no end to the heinous crimes,” the mayor added.
Organizers estimated about 6,000 people took part in the rally, Kyodo news agency said. Police declined to give an estimate.
The arrest of U.S. Marine Tyrone Hadnott, 38, on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old girl sparked outrage on Okinawa, host to a big chunk of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan, and stirred memories of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl that prompted huge anti-base protests and jolted the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The girl, who came under heavy criticism on the Internet, later dropped charges, and Hadnott was released to the custody of U.S. military authorities, who have been investigating the case.
Participants in Sunday’s rally adopted a resolution demanding consolidation of the U.S. bases and revisions to a pact governing the status of U.S. military personnel in Japan to give Japanese authorities greater legal jurisdiction.
Both Tokyo and Washington have so far rejected demands to revise the Status of Forces Agreement.
“The rights of the people of Okinawa continue to be violated by the base-related damage, and we call on both the U.S. and Japanese governments to fundamentally revise the Status of Forces Agreement,” Kyodo quoted the resolution as saying.
The pact was not an issue in the Hadnott case since the Marine was arrested off-base by Japanese police.
Organizers, including women’s groups, had hoped for a turnout of around 10,000 people but squabbling between conservative politicians and leftist opposition groups undercut their efforts.
The rally comes as Tokyo is trying to persuade local residents to accept a plan to shift key functions of the U.S. Marine’s Futenma air station from the crowded central city of Ginowan to the lightly populated coastal town of Nago.
Relocating Futenma is key to a broader plan to shift some 8,000 of the 13,000 Marines now on Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam to lighten the presence of the U.S. military on the Japanese island. Nago authorities have agreed to the move but sticky details remain to be worked out.
Anti-base critics argue the consolidation plans will only slightly reduce Okinawa’s burden for the U.S.-Japan security alliance, a pillar of Japan’s post-World War Two diplomacy.
Friction with local communities near U.S. bases often occurs because of concern about crime, accidents and noise, although sensitivities are greater in Okinawa because of the heavy U.S. presence and the island’s long tense relations with the mainland.
On Sunday, the U.S. military said it would cooperate with Japanese police in their investigation of the killing of a taxi driver found stabbed in his cab in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.
A U.S. credit card apparently belonging to a U.S. sailor who has been charged with desertion was found in the cab.
The sailor, who has been taken into U.S. military custody, has not been named as a suspect but may have information regarding the murder case, the U.S. Navy said in a statement on Saturday. Japanese media said the sailor had denied involvement.
Editing by Bill Tarrant