NAHA--Okinawans expressed outrage at Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to retain a defense minister who acknowledged ignorance about a horrific rape case that led to a military policy shift in the prefecture.
Residents said that keeping Yasuo Ichikawa as defense minister is fresh evidence that the central government is ignoring their plight.
The opposition-controlled Upper House passed a censure motion against Ichikawa on Dec. 9.
Ichikawa reportedly said he was not very familiar with the 1995 rape of an elementary school girl by three U.S. servicemen on Okinawa. That incident led to such enormous protests in Okinawa Prefecture that both the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed to reduce the burden on the prefecture as host to U.S. military installations in Japan.
The planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which has now become a sticking point in Japan-U.S. relations, was a result of the anti-military demonstrations.
"Okinawa has endured the burden of the U.S. bases forced on us for 66 years since the end of the war," said Miyoko Ashimine, 64, who leads a group in Okinawa Prefecture on gender issues. "How can a person who doesn't know such a historical fact stay on as defense minister?"
Nobuko Karimata, 70, chairwoman of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, said the central government should not push the relocation of the Futenma air station from Ginowan to Nago in the prefecture under the current circumstances.
"If the central government goes ahead with the relocation, the anger shared by people in Okinawa will explode," she said.
Okinawans are demanding the Futenma air station be relocated outside the prefecture. They also remain infuriated by the remarks of Satoshi Tanaka, former Okinawa Defense Bureau director-general, who used a reference to rape in November in discussing the relocation issue with reporters.
Among the enraged Okinawans is a man in his 60s, whose teenage daughter was killed in a hit-and-run committed by a U.S. serviceman in 1998.
"(The defense minister) nonchalantly said that he does not know much about the rape incident and went on to say his remarks do not warrant resignation," the man said. "I just don't understand his mind-set."
The U.S. serviceman was driving under the influence of alcohol when his car struck the girl who was riding on motor bike. He sped away to a U.S. base without helping her.
The Naha District Court sentenced him to one year and eight months in prison.
"(The sentence) was too light," the father said. "I struggled not to shout in rage when I heard the ruling in the court."
But what he found more frustrating, he said, was the response of the Japanese government.
Following the accident, Hiromu Nonaka, then chief Cabinet secretary, and other government bigwigs visited the family to offer their condolences. But they stopped contacting the father despite his repeated requests.
"What families of victims are asking for is the government's resolve not let the case be forgotten," he said. "We will not be saved if government officials ignore the case after some time."
There has been little progress in reducing U.S. military bases on the island, Okinawans say.
In addition, they say the central government has never been serious about seeking a major overhaul of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which many consider unfair to the Japanese side.
Crimes committed by U.S. servicemen continue.
"Okinawa is still suffering," the man said.
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