Tens of thousands of Okinawan residents rallied Sunday against a US military base on the island, days ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.
"Okinawa's future is for us, the Okinawan people to decide," Ginowan mayor Yoichi Iha told a supportive crowd. "We cannot let America decide for us."
Protesters, from elderly people wearing straw hats to young families carrying babies, applauded the mayor's speech in a park near the controversial US Marine Corps Futenma Air Base in Ginowan city.
Organisers said some 21,000 people had gathered for the event, which comes ahead of Obama's visit to Tokyo on Friday and Saturday.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said in the run-up to his August election victory the base should be moved off the island.
That view was supported by 70 percent of Okinawa residents in a poll published this month by the Mainichi newspaper.
"I think getting rid of Futenma would be a good starting point for the removal of all the U.S. bases from Okinawa," said a 60-year-old woman at Sunday's protest, who gave her name only as Shinzato.
"It's such a wonderful place. It makes no sense to build it here," said Hiroshi Ashitomi, a long-time anti-base campaigner.
Environmentalists are anxious to protect marine life including coral and rare dugongs in nearby waters.
Others have different priorities.
"Nature is important, but the primary responsibility of a politician is to protect people's lives and property," said Kosuke Gushi, a regional assemblyman with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party that signed off on the plan while in government.
No deal during Obama visit
Hatoyama has vowed to build a less subservient relationship with the United States.
Hatoyama has said he needs time to review the existing base plan, but his Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa has more or less endorsed the current agreement.
Japan's foreign minister said Sunday that no deal can be expected during President Barack Obama's visit this week, saying the issue needs more time to resolve.
Obama is scheduled to arrive Friday, and a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is on the agenda. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Sunday on TV Asahi that "an agreement between the heads of state holds heavy meaning," but cannot be expected to be finalized during Obama's visit.
Under a 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement, the Futenma Marine base in the centre of the city of Ginowan is set to be closed and replaced with a facility built partly on reclaimed land at Henoko, a remoter part of the island, by 2014.
The deal is part of a wider plan to re-organise U.S. troops and reduce the burden on Okinawa by moving up to 8,000 Marines to Guam.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has just urged Japan to approve the plan ahead of Obama's visit, which is scheduled to start on Nov. 12.
There are 47,000 U.S. soldiers in Japan.
Okinawa hosts about half the U.S. troops in Japan. Those who live near the bases complain of noise, crime, pollution and accidents.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 08 Kasım 2009, 11:52
Okinawans reacted with fury to the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen. Demands to close the base on safety grounds grew when a US helicopter crashed in the grounds of a local university in 2004.
American occupation forces only handed the island back to Japan in 1972, but it continues to host more than half of the 47,000 US troops stationed in the country.