OKINAWA, Japan -- More than 27,000 people linked hands under the bright skies of Japan's Okinawa island on Thursday in a dramatic protest against U.S. forces there.
They formed a human chain stretching 11 miles around the largest U.S. air base in Asia. Singing, laughing, and occasionally beating drums or playing guitars, they came together from all around Japan in hopes of showing President Clinton the huge U.S. military presence on the Japanese island must be reduced.
The protest took place a day before Clinton's arrival to join other Group of Eight leaders in a summit residents hope can throw a spotlight on festering local resentment of what they have long complained is an unfairly heavy burden.
''Bases are places where they practice killing people every day,'' was written on a handkerchief held by a demonstrator.
The initially festive atmosphere in the human ring -- just an arm's length from the fence surrounding Kadena Air Force Base -- turned solemn just minutes after it was announced the chain had been formed.
''Fifty-five years ago Okinawa was the only place in Japan to suffer a land battle,'' said organizer Seishu Sakaihara, referring to the 200,000 killed during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, the single most bloody episode of the Pacific War.
''In all of Japan we have the greatest experience of suffering in this way. So we don't want this tragic history to repeat,'' he said. ''If we permit the bases to stay we are allowing war.''
Outside one gate leading to a boom town that developed catering to U.S. military personnel, banners flew that read ''Bases Out of Okinawa,'' ''Get the bases out of the prefecture,'' ''American troops go home.''
The demonstration was peaceful, with protesters breaking their chain to allow passage of the few cars entering or leaving the base.
Kadena's commander, General James Smith, told a news conference he welcomed the protest as part of the democratic process but did not know how the G8 leaders would react.
''I don't know how this will be interpreted,'' he said. ''In many ways, these people just deserve to be heard.''
''Years Of Pain''
Anti-U.S. base sentiment in Okinawa has festered for years.
''We are expressing 55 years of pain through this chain,'' an editorial in the local Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper said. ''It is the only way we can do it.''
Residents have long objected to the fact that while they have less than one percent of Japan's land, they play host to about 26,000 of the total 48,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan -- just over one-quarter of the entire U.S. military force in Asia.
Urgency was injected into the anti-base campaign recently after a U.S. marine was arrested for molesting a 14-year-old girl this month and an airman was nabbed for a hit-and-run accident, setting off a wave of protests and demonstrations.
Colored balloons and ribbons were tied to the perimeter fence and a women's group displayed banners made up of hundreds of handkerchiefs, each with peace messages written in Japanese.
The massive Kadena base has the longest runway in the Asian region. The base's Web site says it ''contributes significantly to the island's economy.''
Long-standing resentment of the bases flared after the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. marines, a bitter memory revived by this month's arrest of the marine.
The incident prompted the U.S. military to slap a late-night curfew on its forces in Okinawa until after the summit.
Despite calls for removal of the bases, Washington is unlikely to do so, arguing that their presence is essential for security in the Asia-Pacific. But the recent reduction of tension in the region, especially on the Korean peninsula, brings the issue into question as never before.
Kadena commander Smith said he felt Kadena would become more important in the years to come, but added: ''The number of troops in Japan is the most important question that Japan and the U.S. face over the next 50 years.
''We'd better get it right.''
The G8 comprises the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Britain, Canada and Russia.