Tens of thousands protest against the US military presence on Okinawa after woman's murder

The US and Japan agreed to close the same base in 1996 after three American military personnel raped a 12-year-old school girl. Plans to relocate, however, never came to fruition.
June 19, 2016, 2:20pm
Thousands of protesters hold placards reading 'Our anger is off limits' during a large rally in Naha, Okinawa island, southern Japan, 19 June 2016. (Hitoshi Maeshiro/Reuters)

It was a hot Sunday on Japan's Okinawa Island, but that didn't stop tens of thousands of people from coming out to protest against the US military bases there, after an US civilian who works on the base was arrested on suspicion of murdering a local woman.

It was the biggest demonstration against the US military presence on Okinawa in two decades, and marked a new low in the already strained relations between Washington and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the island.

Organizers said 65,000 people attended the rally at a park in central Naha.

Protesters called for a review of the US-Japanese security agreement, which requires that Okinawa host the majority of American troops in Japan.

"Japan is part of Japan and when you hurt your little finger the whole body feels pain. I want Abe to feel Okinawa's pain," said Shigenori Tsuhako, 70, who came to the event because his granddaughter is the same age as the 20-year-old murdered woman, Rina Shimabukuro.

Today's — Jon Letman (@jonletman)June 19, 2016

Tens of thousands protest against US military bases in #Okinawa following woman's murder https://t.co/wCBXhiRM41
— YouTube Newswire (@ytnewswire) June 19, 2016

The US and Japan agreed in 1996 to close Futenma, a military base located in a residential area of the island, after the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl by three US military personnel spurred mass demonstrations.

Thousands protest — misuzu sakurai (@misuzusakurai1)June 19, 2016

But the plan never came to fruition because residents near the proposed relocation site voiced their opposition to the move, citing concerns about noise, pollution, and crime.

Related: The US Navy Just Banned Drinking for Sailors in Japan

The American contractor suspected in the killing — a former Marine — was arrested on May 19 on suspicion of abandoning the woman's body, but has not yet been charged with killing her, the Associated Press said.

The arrest prompted the US military to announce a 30-day period of mourning for the victim and restrict off-base drinking in a bid to assuage local anger.

But relations frayed further with the subsequent arrest of a US sailor on Okinawa on suspicion of drunk driving following a car crash.

"All US bases in Japan should close. I want Abe to listen to what the people in Okinawa are saying," said Ryoko Shimabukuro, a 28-year-old government worker at the protest.

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga's party promised the crowd in Naha to fight on their behalf and make sure the US Marines are moved off the island.

Okinawa is located about 400 miles south of the rest of Japan and is the same distance from China, meaning its strategic importance has increased as China's military prowess and ambitions in the region have grown.

The island was the site of some of the bloodiest fighting between the US and Japan in World War II, and since then the US military has maintained a presence there. It now hosts some 50,000 US nationals, including 30,000 military personnel and civilian contractors, on dozens of US military bases and training areas that occupy around 25 percent of the island.