U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy waves during her arrival Tuesday in Naha, Okinawa prefecture. (AP)
NAHA, JAPAN — Several hundred people rallied Tuesday ahead of a visit by U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy to the Japanese island of Okinawa to protest plans to relocate an American military base there.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 American troops based in Japan under a bilateral defense pact. Kennedy, who arrived later Tuesday, is to meet with Okinawan officials and may see the base relocation site during her three-day visit, Kyodo News agency reported.
Holding signs that read, "No base!" and "Bring democracy to Okinawa," more than 300 protesters, many of them families with children, marched on the main street of Naha to the sound of drums and music, urging authorities to remove the U.S. bases from the island altogether.
"We as Okinawan people gave our answer many, many times that we don't want maritime bases here," said English teacher Kazue Nakamura-Huber, 47. "We want to stop the (new) base project here."
Many Okinawans feel unfairly burdened by hosting many U.S. military facilities on the island, which holds a strategic location in the East China Sea, relatively close to China and Taiwan.
The U.S. has proposed a broad plan to consolidate and reduce its troop presence in Okinawa, including a 1996 agreement to move the Marines Corps Futenma air station, which is in a populated area, to a more remote coastal area called Henoko in Nago City.
The plan got a boost in December when the governor of Okinawa gave the go-ahead for land reclamation to relocate the base, whose plans include runways extending over water.
But many Okinawans want Futenma closed and moved completely off the island. Opponents filed a lawsuit last week seeking to invalidate the governor's approval.
The plan also faces uncertainty as Nago's mayor, a vocal opponent of the relocation plan, was re-elected last month.
Wakana Toguchi, a 12-year-old school girl who joined the rally with her family, said she hoped to show Kennedy the planned relocation site in her town so the ambassador would understand why the base shouldn't be there.
"If I get to see Mrs. Kennedy, I will invite her and show her the beautiful sea, jugons (rare sea animals) and lots of corals. She can perhaps enjoy riding a canoe," Toguchi said. "And I must tell her not to build the base."
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.