He has nightmares in which one of the massive C130 Hercules refuelling aircraft crashes on take off from the US Marine Corps Futenma air station, showering the densely packed streets of Ginowan with tons of aviation fuel.

 

He flinches, he says, when the aircraft come over so low that he feels he could stand on his roof and touch them.

 

For more than 50 years, the people of the town that literally surrounds the marines' base on Japan's southernmost island of Okinawa have borne the burden of the American presence, but not any more.

 

They may have protested in the past at a military that some still see as an occupying force, but the difference today is that they are very angry.

 

"Every day and every night, I am scared," says Chinen, a retired journalist and local council member. "But now we are more angry than scared."

  

Noise levels

 

This 69-year-old's fury - along with the anger of 403 other plaintiffs - was provoked by the decision on 11 March of the commanding officer of the Futenma facility to ignore a request to appear at the Naha District Court to answer a lawsuit filed against him over "intolerable noise levels" at his base.

  

There are 41,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan, 28,000 of them in Okinawa. And while US facilities can be found the length of Japan, 75% of them are in Okinawa.

Colonel Richard Leuking also failed to provide a written answer to the court and was only served personal notification of the legal proceedings against him after refusing to accept the initial documents through the postal system on 25 February.

  

"He is simply ignoring the Japanese legal system," said Chinen.

 

"Everyone - even foreigners - should respect our laws and, while we wanted to believe that this time he would come to court, we really cannot expect much of him because he has ignored our demands since the start of the case."

  

The suit was first filed in October 2002 and names the Japanese government and Colonel Leuking as defendants.

 

The plaintiffs had wanted to sue the US government, but were told it was not possible under Japanese law to sue a foreign government.

  

Main demands

 

Earlier hearings have dealt with the Japanese government's responsibility for damage and injury caused by the presence of the base, with the plaintiffs insisting on three main demands, according to Chinen.

  

"Our first - and very minimum - demand is that the base suspends aircraft flights between 7pm and 7am," he said.

 

"We also want compensation for the mental and physical damage caused by the noise, and thirdly, we demand that day-time noise be reduced to a maximum of 65 decibels."

  

Local residents regularly have to put up with 75 decibels, while they have occasionally even been exposed to 100 decibels, he said. "And that's no way to live."

  

The total compensation figure has been set at $2.56mn.

  

US air bases are still a fixture in
many parts of Japan

Colonel Victor Warzinski, a spokesman for US forces in Japan, refused to comment specifically on the Futenma case on the grounds that the litigation is ongoing.

 

"Typically these matters are a government-to-government issue and are dealt with through the appropriate channels, but I have never before experienced a local commander being taken to court over a noise complaint," he said.

  

"Defence Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld underlined the importance of the US forces in Japan when he was here in November last year," Colonel Warzinski said.

 

"The bottom line is that we have a long-standing relationship, a relationship that the US values and is mutually beneficial for both Japan and the US and meets our national security interests in this part of the world," he added.

  

Personnel problem

 

Rumsfeld visited Okinawa during his three-day trip to Japan last year, and was met by protesters outside US military facilities on the island. 

 

He accepted a petition from Governor Keiichi Inamine calling on Washington to reduce the number of personnel stationed in the prefecture and to close down bases.

  

Donald Rumsfeld visited Okinawa
during his 2003 trip to Japan

There are 41,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan, 28,000 of them in Okinawa. And while US facilities can be found the length of Japan, 75% of them are in Okinawa.

  

"US commanders here and throughout the world try to assure that they can minimise their impact on the local community," Rumsfeld told Gov Inamine. "I am here in Okinawa to listen, to learn, to see first-hand what the situation is."

  

Ironically, Futenma air station is one of the few examples of local pressure forcing both Washington and Tokyo to act.

 

Under the terms of a 1996 accord, the base is to be closed down and moved to a facility that is to be built in northern Okinawa - although work has not yet started on the new base due to environmental concerns.

  

Impatient

 

Moreover, local people are simply tired of waiting for the Americans to go.

 

"After the war, we experienced 27 years of occupation by US forces before Okinawa reverted to Japanese rule," said Chinen, whose father and 16-year-old brother were both killed fighting the invading Americans in 1945.

"Our rights and livelihoods were damaged for all that time - but we felt great hope when we became Japanese again.

  

In the worst example of the estimated 5000 crimes committed by US military personnel since 1975, a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl was abducted and raped by three servicemen in September 1995.

"But soon we felt that nothing had changed because there are so many US bases here," he said. "We still feel that we are occupied. Twenty per cent of Okinawa is in the hands of the US armed forces."

  

Yet, it is not simply an issue of land.

  

In the worst example of the estimated 5000 crimes committed by US military personnel since 1975, a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl was abducted and raped by three servicemen in September 1995.

 

The incident was so shocking that it prompted a demonstration by around 85,000 people demanding that the Americans leave.

  

And that case is just the tip of the iceberg, says Chinen.

"There are many incidents here, but very few are actually revealed in public," he said.

 

"Our citizens have been raped, they have been hit and they have been killed. It is especially difficult for the women of Ginowan. We have all had our human rights infringed."

  

Security concerns

 

And while they may have the sympathy of the government, the plaintiffs have little support from anyone in power. Regional security concerns are simply too serious.

  

"We fully recognise that the issue of noise from air bases is a very serious issue for people living in local areas and, in order to lessen that burden, we have reached agreements on noise reduction measures at various US bases, including Iwakuni, Yokota and Misawa," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiro Okuyama said.

  

The media question Rumsfeld and
his Japanese counterpart in 2003

"We are in constant contact with the US side on this matter and, basically, what we hope for is the effective maintenance of the deterrence that the US forces have in this region," he said, adding that he foresees "not much movement" in the future on the level of the US presence in Japan.

  

Even the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), accepts that US military personnel have become part of the Japanese scenery, and are likely to remain so.

  

"We know that the presence on our soil of these bases is critical for our society, but the question is how many should be here," said Akihisa Nagashima, who handles the base issue for the DPJ.

 

"In my personal opinion, several critical facilities should remain, including Yokosuka, Kadena and Sasebo, because we have the threat of North Korea and the potential threat of China in the future to deal with," he said.

  

But Chinen is undeterred.

  

"I'm an optimist," he says. "Before the reversion to Japanese rule, we thought that would take 100 years, but we struggled on steadily and it only took 27 years. Other Asian countries managed to get rid of their colonial rulers.

"We are still like that, but we believe someday we will achieve the removal of all bases from Okinawa. And after that, they will be gone from all of Japan."