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NAHA, Okinawa — Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Saturday said he hopes a realignment of U.S. forces in Japan will lead to closing all Marine Corps bases on Okinawa.

During a forum held to discuss a coming realignment plan and Okinawa’s future in the post-realignment era, Inamine said moving all Marines from the island is a top goal for him.

“Why do I want all the Marine bases [to] be moved out of Okinawa?” Inamine asked an audience of about 300 people. “It is because the Marine Corps on Okinawa is the chief symbol of the American military presence here.”

But the major hurdle to reducing that presence on Okinawa is a “perception gap” existing between Okinawa and the rest of Japan, he said.

“They don’t realize this is an issue for the whole of Japan,” Inamine said. “The most important question we have to ask ourselves is if we want to remain under the umbrella of the United States.”

The United States and Japan are negotiating a realignment of the U.S. military presence in the country. U.S. officials have said they are aware they must ease what has been called “Okinawa’s burden.” In 1996, the United States and Japan agreed to reduce the footprint of U.S. bases on Okinawa by 20 percent. That process is under way.

The prefecture’s main island is host to more than half the U.S. troops and 75 percent of the land is used solely for U.S. bases in Japan.

But U.S. and Japanese leaders also agree the U.S. military presence is necessary to ensure regional stability, especially with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

No U.S. officials were invited to speak at the forum.

After Inamine spoke, five Okinawa political and academic leaders discussed realignment and its effect on Okinawa’s 1.3 million people.

Masaaki Gabe, an international relations professor at the University of Ryukyus, said the military transformation in Japan would not bring much change.

“The strength of U.S. forces in Japan will remain almost unchanged,” he said. “But what will happen is that the role of Japan in the security alliance is about to change.”

In February meetings in Washington, he said, both governments agreed to reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa while maintaining a deterrence.

“However, maintaining a deterrence power is the principal priority and reducing the military presence is secondary,” Gabe said.

The forum was held on the anniversary of a crash of a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter on the campus of Okinawa International University, adjacent to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

“The crash illustrated the fact that the air station is too dangerous to operate,” said Yoshihiko Higa, senior political counselor for the Inamine administration.

Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, who recently visited the United States, said bases there are less of a danger to nearby communities.

“When I visited San Diego, I saw that a buffer zone is set up at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar so that the air operations do not affect the local community,” he said. “If the same buffer zone was set up here at the air station Futenma, it would cover the entire city of Ginowan.”

After the forum, some people who attended said the biggest problem they face is convincing the rest of Japan the U.S. troops on Okinawa need to be reduced.

“I truly feel the gap between Okinawa and mainland Japan,” said Yuri Kinjo, a sophomore of Okinawa International University. “When the helicopter crashed at our college, not many people in the mainland knew about it.

“And no knowledge means no concern,” she added.


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