GINOWAN, Okinawa — Heavy rains did not deter an estimated 17,000 Okinawans from encircling Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Sunday in a symbolic closing of the controversial base.
Organizers of the event, who timed it to commemorate the 38th anniversary of Japan reassuming control of Okinawa from the U.S., claimed success on two of three attempts to join hands around the eight-mile fence line. Organizers estimated that there were 17,000 participants; Okinawa police did not release an official estimate of the crowd size.
Meanwhile, the Sankei Shimbun reported Sunday that Japanese officials are hinting negotiations over where to move the Marine air units could stretch out over the next six months.
The weekend protests came before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s scheduled stop Friday in Tokyo for talks with Japan Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on Futenma. According to the State Department, she will stop in Japan on her way to attend the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing.
But not everyone in the vicinity was against the base. At times Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha’s speech was drowned out by martial music and propaganda broadcast from several vans belonging to pro-military and right wing groups.
On the protest line along Highway 330, Kazuhisa Nakada, 44, of Naha joined hands with his daughters, ages 11 and 6. "I brought them here so they could see for themselves that there are this many committed people who would come out even in this heavy rain to say no to military bases," he said.
Sunday’s protest was the culmination of several weekend anti-base events. On Friday some 3,000 people took part in a three-pronged "Peace March" past U.S. bases that ended in a rally on Saturday.
Opposition to keeping the Marine air units on Okinawa grew last summer when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promised during the Lower House election to close the base and move the Marines off the island — if not outside Japan altogether.
The Asahi Shimbun reported Saturday that 43 percent of Okinawans polled last week wanted all the U.S. forces to leave the island, while 42 percent called for reducing the military presence. Only 13 percent of the 746 respondents supported Hatoyama’s plan.
U.S. officials contend the 2006 plan is the best option for maintaining regional security while still reducing the base footprint on Okinawa. Under the agreement, once a new air facility is built on Camp Schwab, most of the U.S. bases south of Kadena Air Base would be closed.