Okinawa marks 40 years since return to Japan

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

TOKYO -- The tropical island chain of Okinawa Tuesday marked 40 years since occupying U.S. forces returned it to Japan, as locals readied to protest against the continued American military presence there.

A ceremony, attended by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, U.S. ambassador John Roos and a phalanx of local politicians, is due to be held later in the day marking the anniversary.

Governor Hirokazu Nakaima used the anniversary to announce a 10-year development plan aimed at boosting the local economy.

The plan said the island would take advantage of its proximity to China and other fast-growing Asian countries, and “would become a hub to get involved in Asia's economic growth.”

The prefecture will upgrade transportation and infrastructure for information technology as well as invest in new technologies, it said.

The plan complains, however, that the concentration of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa “is a huge obstacle to our development.”

Last month the United States said it would redeploy 9,000 Marines from the island, sending them to Guam, Australia and Hawaii, as it sought to ease a long-running stand-off over an unpopular airbase that sits in a crowded urban area.

The withdrawal was originally part of a 2006 plan to shutter the Futenma base and shift it to a sparsely populated coastal zone.

But local objections, including the potential impact on sea life, have stymied those plans.

On Sunday, some 3,000 people rallied near the Futenma airbase calling for its closure.

A rally organizer told AFP a further demonstration is planned for Tuesday evening.

Okinawa fell to the U.S. in a vicious battle in the closing days of World War II and remained under American control until 1972.

Vast tracts of the archipelago used by the occupying military remained under U.S. control after the handover and today still play host to around half of the 47,000 troops Washington has in Japan.

This vast presence is a source of friction with islanders who complain of noise and the risk of accidents from the bases, as well as the crime and social problems associated with the presence of a huge contingent of mainly young, single men.

In spite of the huge U.S. presence and the money that pours in from Tokyo, Okinawa remains one of Japan's poorest prefectures.

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