NAHA, Okinawa – Okinawa's governor pleaded with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) on Sunday to remove some of the 28,000 U.S. forces stationed on this Japanese island and ease the environmental impact of military facilities.
In a meeting at his offices, Gov. Keiichi Inamine (search) told Rumsfeld he understood that on matters of defense he had to defer to the national government in Tokyo. But he urged Rumsfeld to accept that Okinawans bear too much of Japan's burden as hosts of Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps (search) bases.
"It has been 58 years" since Japan surrendered to U.S. forces to end World War II (search), Inamine said through an interpreter, and the U.S. military presence has become an economic and social impediment.
Rumsfeld replied that he was not ready to make any decisions about changes on Okinawa because the Pentagon is studying its entire global network of bases, of which Okinawa is an important element. The Pentagon chief reminded Inamine that "this part of the world has seen peace" with U.S. forces present.
Separately, the American ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, said during an appearance with Rumsfeld at Camp Foster (search) in southern Okinawa that although Tokyo has balked at immediately sending troops to Iraq, he believes the government will go ahead with the plan "probably still this year."
Rumsfeld said he came to Okinawa to see the situation firsthand and to hear from U.S. commanders and island officials. After about 40 minutes of talks, which were open to the news media at the Okinawans' initiative, Rumsfeld made clear that he had heard enough and was ready to leave.
"We've listened," he said politely, but firmly. With that, Inamine made a final comment and the talks ended.
Rumsfeld then went South Korea, where he planned to meet with senior government officials in Seoul on Monday and with U.S. troops on Tuesday, wrapping up his first Asia tour since becoming defense secretary in 2001.
Dozens of riot police were at the entrance of the U.S. base in central Seoul where Rumsfeld arrived by helicopter Sunday evening, but there was no sign of protesters.
Although the U.S. force structure on Okinawa is included in the Pentagon's worldwide review, it appears unlikely that Washington will propose any substantial reduction of troops levels on the island.
Under a 1996 agreement, some training areas are being reduced or moved and bases are being consolidated. But Okinawa's location in the Pacific is almost ideal for the Marines and the Air Force.
As an Air Force official said Sunday in alluding to Okinawa's importance in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, the flight time from Okinawa to Pyongyang (search), the North Korean capital, is less than to Tokyo.
In the midst of Rumsfeld's trip, North Korea said Sunday it is willing to abandon nuclear development when the United States discontinues what it called a hostile policy and eliminates "threats" against the communist country, a South Korean news agency reported.
The Air Force has two F-15 fighter squadrons of 24 planes each based at Kadena, as well as an array of surveillance and intelligence-gathering aircraft such as the RC-135. The Navy flies EP-3 electronic surveillance planes from Kadena; the Marines have Harrier fighters and helicopters.
At his meeting with Rumsfeld, Inamine presented a written petition listing grievances against the U.S. military and spelling out the many changes his government would like to see made.
While saying he recognized that U.S. bases in Japan play a crucial role in maintaining peace in the Far East, Inamine's petition said, "It is also the fact that Okinawa prefecture today still faces the immense and dense U.S. facilities" that have been on the island since World War II.
The bases are an impediment to urban development and economic progress, he added.
Inamine urged an unspecified further reduction in the number of U.S. troops and bases on Okinawa, new measures to reduce aircraft noise and shifting Marine Corps training off Okinawa.
He also called for an end to the Navy's use of low-frequency sonar in the waters off the island, but Rumsfeld said U.S. scientific studies show the sonar has "little if any impact on marine mammals."
The predominant U.S. force on Okinawa is the Marine Corps, with about 17,700 personnel at numerous bases. The main unit is the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force (search), which includes the 3rd Marine Division. It led the sea-borne charge that liberated Guam from Japanese occupation in July 1944.
The Marines have been at the center of controversy here about crimes committed by U.S. troops. The U.S. government on a number of occasions has felt compelled to apologize publicly. Most notable was the 1995 case of a 12-year-old Japanese school girl who was raped by three U.S. servicemen on Okinawa. That led to some of the worst anti-American military demonstrations seen in Japan in decades.