barack obama.jpg
Photograph: EPA/WILL OLIVER

Thousands of demonstrators demanded the US military withdraw its troops from the Japanese island of Okinawa Wednesday, hours before US President Barack Obama arrived in the country.

About 4,000 people gathered in front of US Kadena Air Base to commemorate the death of an Okinawa woman and to call for the withdrawal of the US military, organizers said.

The demonstration came six days after the arrest of a former US marine in connection with the death of the 20-year-old woman in the city of Uruma.

"We have suffered from the US military bases for 71 years since the end of World War II," Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine told a crowd. "Let's mobilize anger and change that!"

The 32-year-old former marine, who now works at the US air base, was arrested Thursday on suspicion of dumping the woman's body. He has admitted to strangling her, Japanese media reported.

Obama landed at an airport in central Japan Wednesday night after a three-day trip to Vietnam, and later held talks with Abe in the coastal city of Shima, where a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations will start Thursday.

“I asked the president to carry out effective measures to prevent a recurrence of such a crime,” Abe told a joint news conference after the meeting.

Obama expressed his “sincerest condolences and deepest regrets” for the incident.

“The United States will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation and ensure that justice is done under the Japanese legal system,” the president said.

“We want to see a crime like this prosecuted here in the same way we would feel horrified and want to provide a sense of justice to a victim’s family back in the United States,” he said. “I think the Japanese people should know how deeply moved we are about what has happened.”

The protesters also urged Washington and Tokyo to abandon the construction of a new US military base in Nago city in northern Okinawa, which will take over the functions of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the middle of the residential areas on the island.

In 1996, the US and Japan agreed to close Futenma to ease islanders' anger after a 12-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three US servicemen. The two countries' governments have tried to build a new facility in exchange for the closure despite strong opposition from locals and environmental groups. However, nothing has materialized so far.

Around half of the 53,000 US military personnel in Japan are stationed on Okinawa, 1,600 kilometres south-west of Tokyo, which is less than 1 per cent of the country’s total land mass.

After the summit meeting on Friday, Obama will travel to Hiroshima, where the US dropped an atomic bomb in the closing days of World War II. He will become the first sitting US president to visit the western Japanese city.

“I told the president that I wholeheartedly welcomed his decision to visit Hiroshima,” said Abe, who will accompany Obama to the city.

The president said their visit to Hiroshima “will honour all those who were lost in World War II and reaffirm our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Despite appeals by survivors and anti-nuclear activists, the White House has stressed that Obama will not apologize for the bombing on behalf of the US during his visit.

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