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A new deployment of U.S. military aircraft to Okinawa has sparked protests and reignited residents' long-simmering resentment of America's military presence there. Opponents say the vertical takeoff Osprey has a poor safety record and poses a danger to inhabitants of the densely populated Japanese island.
U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is surrounded by the city of Ginowan. At Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, 200 yards outside the base, the roar of rotor blades can be so deafening that classes can't be held without keeping heavily reinforced windows shut.
People here call Futenma "the world's most dangerous base," and they consider the Osprey a risk because of accidents in training flights overseas.
The school's principal, Kazuhisa Kawamura, worries constantly about an accident.
"The aircraft fly right over our school every day," he says. "It's frightening."
In fact, one of the helicopters did crash nearby in 2004.
America's Contested Presence On Okinawa
Protesters blocked an entrance to Futenma this week as anti-base sentiment boiled over. Masaaki Tomichi, 39, said residents have had enough.
"The helicopters flying around above my head, kids' heads, it's just crazy," Tomichi said.
Washington, D.C., and Tokyo agreed years ago to move the Marine base farther north. But islanders, chafing at the burden of hosting 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, have blocked the plan, which remains in limbo.
The U.S. military was once a vital source of jobs and revenue but now accounts for only 5 percent of the Okinawan economy, far exceeded by tourism. Surveys this year by local newspapers found Okinawans favor downsizing or eliminating American bases by a margin of nearly 9 to 1.
'Forced Deployment' Symbolic Of The Past
The past as much as the future animates this anti-base movement. One-third of the island's population, along with 12,000 American soldiers, died during the bloody Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
In one of the most notorious episodes, the Imperial Army conscripted about 200 schoolgirls as nurses — and then, when defeat was imminent, abandoned them to their fate. Nearly all of the so-called Himeyuri nurses perished.
Okinawans feel they're still being sacrificed for the military, says anti-base activist and scholar Kosozu Abe.
"Without Okinawa's history," Abe says, "our opposition to the Osprey wouldn't have materialized. This forced deployment is symbolic of what we have experienced in the past."
A number of American politicians and scholars argue that the U.S. could save billions of dollars and better meet its strategic objectives by moving most of the Marines back to the mainland U.S. The troops could be "surged" into Okinawa at times of crisis.
But, with tensions rising over territorial issues in the Asia Pacific, that scenario seems unlikely.