One of biggest protests in 2 decades: Over 50,000 Okinawans gather for anti-US military rally

The Japanese island of Okinawa sees one of the biggest demonstrations in two decades, involving at least 50,000 people who protest against heavy US military presence after a local woman was murdered by an ex-Marine and a string of other incidents.

The rally, which organizers said numbered more than 65,000 – including Governor Takeshi Onaga and officials from opposition parties – has taken place in Okinawa’s capital Naha located in close proximity to US air bases Kadena and Futenma. Simultaneous solidarity protest took place outside the national parliament in Tokyo.

The demonstrators were protesting against heavy US military presence and grave crimes repeatedly committed by servicemen against the residents. In the most recent case that resonated amongst the locals, a 20-year-old woman has been murdered by an ex-Marine employed as civil worker at the US military base.

The Naha rally started with a minute of silence for the murdered woman, then a message written by her father has been read from the stage.

Demonstrators have also protested plans by Washington and Tokyo to move a major US Marine base from the center of the island to pristine waters off Okinawa’s northern coast. Okinawa's Governor Takeshi Onaga, who has spoken at the Naha protest, argues against the plan and wants the base to be removed from Okinawa completely.

The rally ended with signing a petition, demanding that Japan and US governments offer apologies to the family of the murdered 20-year-old woman, and also to all Okinawans.

Okinawa hosts several major US military bases that occupy nearly one fifth of the island’s territory and accommodate about 50,000 U.S. nationals, including 30,000 military personnel, Reuters reports. The bases have long been blamed for noise and air pollution, but they are also seen by many locals as uneasy legacy of post-WWII American military occupation.

"Japan is still a military colony of the United States," 59-year-old teacher Noboru Kitano was quoted as saying by France24. "This base symbolizes that."

READ MORE: Self-defense seminar in high demand in Okinawa after US base employee detained as murder suspect

In May, the 20-year-old woman, Rina Shimabukuro, was raped and murdered by a 32-year-old civil contractor and former US Marine Kenneth Franklin Gadson, who goes by his Japanese wife’s family name of Shinzato. He admitted he strangled and stabbed his victim.

In a separate case, a 24-year-old Marine Justin Castellanos has been charged with the rape of a drunk and passed-out Japanese woman at a Naha hotel, where he was also staying.

On June 5, a 21-year-old US Navy sailor Aimee Meija was caught in a drunk-driving head-on collision with two other cars, injuring two people, with her blood alcohol level six times the legal limit, according to Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Facing public outcry, the US military has introduced curfews, movement restrictions and alcohol ban off base, lifted 11 days after it was imposed. 

Okinawa hosts about 75 percent of all US military installations in Japan, and is an important geopolitical outpost for Washington allowing to project power in the region that neighbors China and the Southeast Asia.