U.S. Shrinks 'Footprint' on Okinawa

ITOMAN, Japan -- U.S. President Bill Clinton said Friday that the United States intends to further reduce its "footprint" on island of Okinawa, which is home to about 26,000 U.S. troops whose presence remains a source of resentment among many local residents.

Clinton, the first U.S. president to visit the island, made his announcement shortly after arriving for the annual meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations plus Russia. But he did not give any specifics.

Noting that the United States five years ago began to consolidate its military bases in Japan, Clinton said: "We will keep all our commitments, and we will do what we can to reduce our footprint on this island.

"We take seriously our responsibility to be good neighbors, and it is unacceptable to the United States when we do not meet that responsibility."

The president's remarks were a tacit acknowledgment of several recent incidents involving allegations of egregious conduct by U.S. troops on Okinawa against local residents.

Earlier this month, a 19-year-old Marine was accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl while on a drunken binge, forcing top U.S. officials to apologize. In 1995, another top U.S. official apologized after three servicemen were convicted in the rape of a 12-year-old girl.

Clinton toured the hallowed "Cornerstone of Peace Park," a war memorial that lies on a serene, wind-swept bluff on Okinawa's southernmost shore.

There, he spoke of the postwar amity between Americans and the Japanese. "The strength of our alliance is one of the great stories of the 20th century," he said.

"I wanted to come here to this place that speaks, most powerfully, in silence about the past to remember those who lost their lives here, to honor what must have been their last wish: that no future generation ever be forced to share their experience or repeat their sacrifice," he added.

The peace park monument was erected to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the epic Battle of Okinawa f the last major U.S.-Japanese battle of World War II.

The ferocious engagement lasted nearly three months and claimed 234,183 lives, including a third of the Okinawan population at the time. Among the dead were more than 10,000 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers.

Although the rest of Japan returned to civilian self-rule in the years after World War II, Okinawa remained under U.S. administration until 1972 f a source of local resentment.

Now a part of Japan, Okinawa once was an independent kingdom and has struggled to maintain its own distinct history and identity.

Clinton acknowledged that Okinawa has played a vital role in the postwar peace. "I know that the people of Okinawa did not ask to play this role, hosting more than 50 percent of American forces in Japan on less than 1 percent of its land mass," he said.