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Local Opposition To The American Presence In Okinawa Is Growing

ELISE HU, HOST:

Early on Sunday morning in Okinawa, Japan, a U.S. Marine crashed his truck into another vehicle, killing its driver, a 61-year-old Japanese man. Police said later that the Marine, who was stationed at one of the island's many U.S. military bases, had a blood alcohol level three times the Japanese legal limit for driving.

The collision is the latest in a string of incidents over the years involving U.S. personnel on the island. They include helicopter crashes and the rape and murder of a local woman last year. Joining us now is Anna Fifield, the Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post.

Anna, welcome.

ANNA FIFIELD: Hi, Elise.

HU: Briefly, what else have you learned about the weekend crash? Who was the driver, and how did this collision happen?

FIFIELD: Yeah. We know that the driver was a 21-year-old Marine who was driving a 2-ton military truck at about 5:30 in the morning local time. The local reports say that he ran a red light and collided with this little truck that was trying to make a right-hand turn at the intersection. The driver, as you said, was 61 years old and was killed - was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterwards.

And there's been this kind of outpouring of grief and kind of frustration on Okinawa since then because - I mean, there was another crash last year - not a fatal one. But there's a sense that this keeps happening despite the U.S. military's promises that they will crack down and this won't happen again.

HU: And how has the U.S. military responded this time?

FIFIELD: Well, they have responded, first of all, by apologizing to the Okinawan people. The head of U.S. forces on Okinawa went to see the governor and sincerely apologized for this. The governor, who is against the expansion of military bases on Okinawa, was very punchy in his response. And he said, you know, basically, we're sick of hearing these excuses time and time again. And he said to the head of U.S. forces, we feel like you are not good neighbors anymore.

Separately, U.S. forces has imposed an alcohol ban on all service members across Japan, including here on the mainland. And they have confined all service members on Okinawa to their bases or to their homes. So they are not allowed to go out in public, and they're not allowed to drink anywhere - even at home.

HU: Now, they've banned alcohol for troops in Japan before, though. Did it work last time? I mean, you have tens of thousands of troops on various Japanese islands who are used to going out to drink, and the holidays are coming up.

FIFIELD: That's right. We don't know exactly how long the last ban lasted, but it was about a month. But clearly, you know, when things go back to normal, you know, incidents like this can happen. So I think people will say it's not enough, what the U.S. is doing last time.

HU: And this is all happening against the backdrop of locals not being happy with shouldering the burden of U.S. troops on Okinawa in the first place. There are plans in the works to move one of the U.S. air bases from a heavily populated area to a more remote region in the northern part of the main Okinawan island. Do these accidents complicate those plans at all?

FIFIELD: They sure do. I mean, many Okinawans say that they unfairly shoulder the burden of the U.S. alliance with Japan. Okinawa makes up only 1 percent of the Japanese landmass, but it has about 64 percent of the American bases in Japan. So they - many people, including this governor, are opposed to the idea that this Marine Corps air station will be moved within the prefecture. They want it moved to mainland Japan. They say enough is enough.

So accidents and incidents like this will only increase that opposition and complicate the U.S. effort to move the base within Okinawa.

HU: And we're sure you'll be keeping an eye on it. Anna Fifield is the Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, and she joined us via Skype.

Thanks, Anna.

FIFIELD: Thanks for having me, Elise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.