ITOMAN, Japan — President Clinton said today that the United States intends to further reduce its "footprint" here on Okinawa, which is home to about 26,000 American troops whose presence remains a source of resentment among many islanders.
Clinton, the first U.S. president in four decades to visit this island, made his announcement shortly after arriving for the annual meeting of the Group of 8--the seven leading industrialized powers plus Russia. He did not give any specifics.
Noting that the U.S. five years ago began to consolidate American 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--actions that have elicited formal U.S. apologies.
Clinton was taking a brief respite as host of the Mideast peace summit back home to turn his attention to the global economy.
But before heading for the Group of 8 conference, the president 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--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.
Today, the names of all the deceased on both sides are carved into the memorial walls.
Clinton was accompanied by Gov. Keiichi Inamine as he strolled around the park.
Because of the prolonged, ongoing peace talks at Camp David between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Clinton delayed his departure from Washington by a day, forcing the cancellation of his planned Thursday afternoon schedule in Tokyo. Instead, Clinton flew directly here.
With Barak and Arafat still encamped at the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, White House officials said Clinton is eager to get back to the talks.
En route to Okinawa, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters aboard Air Force One: "We might go back a little early." He said a final decision will probably be made Saturday.
This evening, the president is to hold a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and then sit down for a working dinner with Putin and the other leaders of the G-8.
Clinton's address this morning came amid simmering anti-U.S. sentiments in the wake of several incidents involving U.S. military personnel stationed on Okinawa.
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.
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--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.
The island prefecture is the only part of Japan that saw ground fighting during the war.
Now, about 26,000 of the more than 40,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan are here. And while Okinawa makes up only 0.6% of Japan's land area, 75% of the land occupied by U.S. military facilities in Japan is on Okinawa.
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% of American forces in Japan on less than 1% of its land mass," he said.