Protest organizer Yoshimasa Karimata smiled as he looked out at the gymnasium overflowing with anti-U.S. military placards and 3,000 fist-waving Okinawans.
Opponents of America’s military presence on this southern Japanese island are riding a wave of public outrage over a recent crime spree by U.S. servicemen, including the alleged gang rape of a 12-year-old girl.
But even as their protests swell, they are finding themselves as much at odds with the decision-makers in Tokyo as they are with the Pentagon.
“All Okinawans are outraged by what is happening, and we want the bases off our island,” said Karimata, assistant director of the left-leaning Okinawan Peace Movement Center. “But all too often our voices aren’t heard in Tokyo.”
Japan’s leaders fear that any renegotiation of the mutual defense pact under which 45,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in the country could open a Pandora’s box of politically divisive issues.
The experience of World War II has left a strong pacifist strain in the Japanese public. Japan’s postwar constitution, written by U.S. occupation forces, bans the use of military force in settling international disputes - a clause that some Japanese say makes the Tokyo-Washington alliance illegal.
About 300 women from throughout Japan marched in Tokyo’s business district Saturday to protest the rape, raising their fists and shouting “Condemn the U.S. soldiers!” and “U.S. military go home.”
“American soldiers still think that they are occupying part of Japan,” said Yoko Sumiyoshi, a member of the New Japan Women’s Association, which organized the rally.
Polls indicate most Japanese support the status quo, however, and the government has stressed it is not considering any significant changes.
But on Okinawa, which bears the brunt of U.S. bases on Japanese soil, the contrasts are painfully clear.
As Karimata led his protesters to an American base in this central Okinawa city, Japanese negotiators in New York were vowing not only their support for the U.S. military presence, but also promising to pay more for their upkeep.
Even Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, head of the same Socialist party that on Okinawa is helping organize a protest expected to draw 30,000 or more people, has said high emotions should not be allowed to hurt the alliance.
Murayama has urged Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, an outspoken opponent of the U.S. military bases, to be less combative.
Ota, a historian and World War II veteran, has refused to help the central government force local landowners to renew contracts allowing the U.S. military to use their land.
At the center of the current tempest are two American Marines and a Navy seaman suspected of raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl in early September. After three weeks in a U.S. military brig, the three were turned over to Japanese custody Friday.
Even before the rape, concern about the conduct of U.S. troops was building:
Last May, Marine Pfc. Joshua Hill bludgeoned an Okinawan woman to death, beating her head more than 20 times with a hammer. He pleaded guilty before a Japanese court.
In August, a brawl at Kadena Air Base put five people, mostly American servicemen, in the hospital, one with stab wounds.
For many Okinawans, anger at Americans and their own Japanese cousins in Tokyo runs deep. An independent kingdom for centuries, Okinawa’s king was forced to abdicate and his subjects assimilated into the Japanese empire late in the last century.
In the closing months of World War II, Tokyo turned Okinawa into a bloody bastion against the advancing Americans. As much as one-quarter of the civilian population died in the battle.
Today, Okinawa, which is the poorest of all the Japanese states, remains the central pillar of the U.S.-Japan military alliance. Of the 45,000 U.S. servicemen and women based in Japan, 30,000 are deployed in Okinawa.