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YOMITAN, Okinawa — Tens of thousands of Okinawans swarmed to a sports complex at the Yomitan village center Sunday to express their opposition to constructing any new military base on Okinawa.
More than a third of the crowd wore yellow, a color suggested by the rally organizers to show their support of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly’s call for immediately closing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and moving the air units outside Okinawa. Yellow, organizers said, represents a yellow warning card used by soccer referees.
The rally began at 3 p.m., and traffic into the area along Highway 58 was still bumper to bumper two hours later. Organizers estimated 90,000 people eventually took part. Okinawa police did not release a crowd estimate.
Sunday’s event had the support of Okinawa’s political spectrum. Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, an independent backed in the last election by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, shared the stage with the members of more left-leaning parties, including Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan.
It was the first time members if the LDP — the ruling party for more than 50 years before Hatoyama took office — attended an anti-base rally on Okinawa.
Just after Hatoyama took office in September, he initiated a review of a 2006 agreement with the U.S. to close Futenma and build a new airstrip for the Marine units on Camp Schwab and on reclaimed land in Oura Bay. The ministerial committee reviewing the plan scrapped the idea, and Hatoyama is studying alternatives.
He promised to come up with a plan acceptable to Okinawa, the U.S. and whatever community he selects to host the Marines by the end of May.
Sunday’s gathering was the largest demonstration on Okinawa since the island reverted to Japan in 1972 after 27 years of U.S. occupation.
It surpassed the 58,000 people who gathered in Ginowan in 1995 to protest the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by two Marines and a sailor, an event that kicked off U.S.-Japan negotiations that resulted in a plan to reduce the size of the bases on Okinawa, including closing Futenma.
Sunday’s rally had a festive atmosphere, with some participants walking dogs with yellow ribbons on their collars. Children marveled at a person clad in a dugong costume who was gathering signatures to help save the endangered species, which makes its home in the waters off Camp Schwab.
Organizers said a resolution opposing the relocation of Futenma would be delivered to Hatoyama and other government officials in Tokyo next week.
"To save the lives, property and living environment of our citizens, we Okinawans urge both the Japanese and U.S. governments to give up relocating Futenma airfield within the prefecture," the resolution states.
Nakaima told the crowd that the rest of Japan needs to "lend a helping hand" in easing the island’s burden of hosting 75 percent of the property used by the U.S. military in Japan. The bases cover a fifth of the island.
He asked Hatoyama "to never give up and honor his (campaign) pledge" to relocate the Marines outside Okinawa.
Mayor Yoichi Iha of Ginowan, where Futenma is located, said Okinawans are not demanding the removal of all U.S. bases from the island.
"Not yet," he said. "If, however, the U.S. government insists on keeping Futenma operations on Okinawa, we must start calling for removal of the entire presence of the military from Okinawa."
Rally participants had different reasons for attending.
"I want all the military bases on Okinawa be closed and moved to the United States," said Tadashi Nakamura, 67, of Naha. "It’s not just a matter of where to move the Futenma operations. All the military bases should be immediately closed."
Sitting next to him on a wall watching the masses walk by, Eiji Matayoshi, 69, said he objected to the status of forces agreement, which covers how servicemembers suspected of crimes are treated.
"The problem of having military bases is the crimes committed by its members," he said. "Once they run back to the bases, there is not much the Okinawa police can do. This is very unfair."
Yoshimi Oyafuso, 46, and her 10-year-old son, Kento, came to the rally by bus from Nanjo City in southern Okinawa.
"If we all join our hands, I am sure we can achieve our goal to move Futenma out of Okinawa," she said.
Not everyone at the rally was against the relocation plan.
Masakazu Isayama, a representative of the Okinawa chapter of the Happiness Realization Party, passed out leaflets supporting the U.S. Marine presence.
"We want people of Okinawa to know the importance of the presence of U.S. military on Okinawa," he said. "Chinese warships recently came close to Okinawan waters. If the Marine Corps leaves, Okinawa will be open to a real threat from China."
Ryuji Kawamitsu, 36, decided it best to not attend the rally.
"It’s not that simple issue," he said as he filled his tank at a gas station in Kitanakagusuku.
"I do not have any resentment to military bases," he said, noting many Americans who live outside the bases have proven themselves good neighbors. "Besides, my grandmother always tells me how Americans were kinder to Okinawans than our Japanese soldiers."