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U.S. Bases On Japanese Island Of Okinawa Have Long Been Contentious


OK. Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, meets in Washington today with President Trump. These are two nations with a long-standing military alliance. No country hosts more U.S. troops than Japan. And nowhere in Japan are there more U.S. bases than on the island of Okinawa. And that has caused friction as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Last week, the governor of Okinawa stopped by NPR's headquarters and unfurled a map of his island.

GOVERNOR TAKESHI ONAGA: (Through interpreter) This is Futenma Air Station.

WELNA: Speaking through an interpreter, Governor Takeshi Onaga pointed out that the U.S. Marine Corps air base Futenma is right in the middle of a densely populated city.

ONAGA: (Through interpreter) Japanese government doesn't listen to our voices. On daily basis, we have U.S. military bases in our community. That's why we Okinawan people express our anger to U.S. military bases next to us.

WELNA: After three U.S. military personnel raped a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa 22 years ago, Japan and the U.S. agreed to relocate the Futenma air station to another part of Okinawa. Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that's not what Okinawans wanted.

SHEILA SMITH: Seventy percent of the Okinawan people would rather have that base relocated on the main island of Japan. But to do that, you have to find another location. And you also have to have the political will in Tokyo to move that base somewhere else. And to date, right or wrong, we have not had a Japanese prime minister who has been willing to do that.

WELNA: Indeed, after meeting with Defense Secretary James Mattis in Tokyo last week, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada made clear through an interpreter that the base would be moved to another part of Okinawa.

MINISTER OF DEFENSE TOMOMI INADA: (Through interpreter) I told him that relocation and the return of MCAS Futenma needs to be realized as soon as possible. We agreed that relocation of it to Henoko is the only solution, and we will continue to cooperate.

WELNA: And Mattis, who was once stationed on Okinawa himself, was fully on board with that.


JAMES MATTIS: During my discussions here, we agreed that our mutual efforts to build the Futenma replacement facility will continue. And it is the only solution that will enable the United States to return the current Marine Corps air station at Futenma to Japan.

WELNA: Those statements appear driven, says Japan expert Smith, by a cold reality. Okinawa is well-situated to respond to recent maneuvers by China near islands claimed by both China and Japan.

SMITH: It's a much more strategically sensitive environment now for the Japanese as well as for the U.S. military. So I don't see, frankly, the Japanese government is going to back away from consolidation of this base.

WELNA: Construction of the new air base in Okinawa that was suspended last year resumed this week.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARREN KORB'S "OLD FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.