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Rumsfeld Visits Okinawa; Meets With Troops, Local Officials

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, South Korea, Nov. 16, 2003 – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the southern Japanese prefecture of Okinawa today, where he met with military service members and local officials.

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Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld speaks informally to airmen at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Nov. 16. Rumsfeld was on a six-day trip to Guam, Japan and South Korea to meet with U.S. military forces and the local military and civilian leadership. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, USAF

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Okinawa is host to roughly 75 percent of U.S. military forces in Japan, and is the site of increasing tensions over the U.S. presence.

After touring U.S. facilities, Rumsfeld met with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine, who presented the defense secretary with a seven-item petition describing areas of concern for the local population.

The two met publicly in the capital city of Naha, on Okinawa's southwest coast. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker also was present at the meeting. Rumsfeld told the governor he was in Okinawa "to listen, to learn, (and) to see first- hand what's taking place down here."

The seven issues in Inamine's petition are:

  • Steady implementation of existing agreements of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa, and further reduction and realignment of U.S. facilities "in a planned and step-by-step manner";
  • Coordination of conditions in regard to Futenma Air Station;
  • Relocation of Marine Corps training and exercises to sites other than Okinawa and overall force reduction of U.S. forces on Okinawa;
  • Fundamental review of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement;
  • "Prevention of incidents and accidents that are associated with operation of facilities, military activities and military personnel and their family members, as well as practices of thorough safety management and thorough discipline and education of personnel;"
  • Banning low-frequency sonar used for underwater detection in the waters surrounding Japan; and
  • Working to reduce aircraft noise.
The Special Action Committee on Okinawa agreed in 1996 to work together to "reduce the burden of bases shouldered by the people of Okinawa," according to an explanation of the petition items that was provided by the Okinawan prefecture government. Local leaders say the concessions made in the SACO agreement don't go far enough in reducing the number of U.S. forces in Okinawa.

Futenma Air Station is a U.S. military air base in the middle of a bustling urban community. Local officials say the base adversely affects the lives of people living in the area and that they would like to use the property for development. They have asked the Japanese government to limit the United States' use of the land to 15 years.

Rumsfeld rejected the governor's assertion that Marine training and noise are increasing on Okinawa.

"I'm sure you're much better informed than I, Governor, but my understanding has been that the training levels and noise levels have declined rather than increased," Rumsfeld told Inamine. "I don't know that that can be quantified, but I do know that there has been a great deal of effort on the part of our forces to minimize the impact."

Inamine cited a high number of crimes committed by U.S. military, dependent and civilian personnel. However, a U.S. State Department official in the country said the per capita crime rate for U.S. personnel in Okinawa is lower than that of the local populace.

Inamine cited traffic and aircraft accidents caused by U.S. personnel as another problem. Rumsfeld responded that the governor had left one thing out in listing things that had happened since there has been a steady U.S. military presence.

"You mentioned things that have occurred over the period of the U.S. presence on bases here," the secretary said. "One other thing has occurred of considerable import, and that is over the decades of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, this part of the world has seen peace."

Rumsfeld also pushed back on Inamine's assertion that low-frequency sonar is dangerous to sea life. "As you know, the United States arranged for some scientific studies to get the best scientific information possible and, at least thus far, it shows that there is little, if any, impact on Marine mammals," the secretary said. "The United States will continue to act consistent with international law and conduct our operations within the rights of Japan and other nations."

Military leaders in the area said U.S. forces have worked hard to foster good relations with the local populace. Service members do a great deal of volunteer work in towns outside their bases, officials said, including teaching English in local schools and volunteering with the Special Olympics.

Also, Marine officials have implemented various restrictions on lower-ranking enlisted personnel to further cut down on crime and traffic accidents. Marines below the rank of sergeant are not allowed to drive or own personal vehicles, and must never leave their base alone. They must always travel with "liberty buddies," a local Marine spokesman explained.

Still, Okinawa remains a popular assignment for service members. The spokesman said retention rates are extremely high, and Marines routinely request to extend their tours there.

Before his meeting with Inamine, Rumsfeld visited U.S. troops on the island. At Kadena Air Base, he was briefed by local military commanders, then stopped and posed for pictures with members of the 18th Civil Engineer Group, who run the base fire department. The unit is the DoD Fire and Emergency Services Fire Department of the Year.

At Marine Corps Base Camp Foster, the secretary had Sunday brunch in the base dining facility and spoke with service members there. In a question-and-answer period, he discussed military personnel issues, the war on terrorism and the future size of the U.S. armed forces, among other issues.

He told the service members that trips like this give him a chance to thank them for their service. "Each of you are volunteers. I know that; we appreciate it," Rumsfeld said. "(Americans) value your service. We admire your willingness to help defend freedom."

After his meeting with the governor, Rumsfeld traveled here for the final stop in his weeklong trip to visit Asian allies. He also visited Guam and other locations in Japan, including Yokosuka and Tokyo. He is scheduled to return to Washington Nov. 18.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSecretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld listens to the interpreter during his talks with Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine in his office at Naha, Okinawa, Nov. 16. Rumsfeld was on a six-day to Guam, Japan and South Korea to meet with U.S. military forces and the local military and civilian leadership. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, USAF.  
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