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Ginowan residents want action on Futenma

Date Posted: 2010-01-07

The U.S. Marines understand Ginowan City residents’ impatience that no decisions have been made on moving the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station out of their city; the Marines would like to see some action too, although some Marines quietly suggest staying is not a bad idea either.

Construction of a new airfield in northern Okinawa is supposed to already be gearing up, as agreed in May 2006 by the Japanese and U.S. governments. The trouble is, the new Japanese government headed by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has put everything on hold, with a decision on where to move Futenma not expected before May. Some political leaders in Tokyo are even hinting now that the government may not even make a decision then.

There’s no question Futenma must move, although some Marines speaking candidly say they think the Marine base should stay right where it is, as it makes good military sense. They note that much of the furor over dangers to residents in buildings close to the base are of the Japanese’s own making, with buildings constructed knowing full well the airbase was there. Those thoughts aside, the real question is whether the Hatoyama regime should honor the agreement made by the previous government voted out of office last August.

Many say yes, the deal to move Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago City, with much of the airbase being built on the Marines’ Camp Schwab with V-shape runways extending into Oura Bay, should stand. Futenma is one of the Marines’ largest facilities in the Pacific, with more than 2,000 Marines based there. The 2,800-meters runway is used by Marine tanker aircraft, cargo planes and a several types of helicopters.

Ginowan City residents have been demanding the airbase close for many years, but after a heavy lift helicopter crashed onto the campus of Okinawa International University in August 2004, the protests became louder and more frequent. The city’s anti-U.S. base mayor, Yoichi Iha, says “this base violates so many regulations and safety rules, it would be illegal to operate it in the United States. The situation has just been left to fester, and no one has been willing to accept responsibility to do anything.”

Nago City residents, where the replacement airfield is to go, have mixed feelings. Many had reluctantly accepted the new airbase in their backyard, citing economic conditions. Others are opposed, including Hiroshi Aratomi, whose group has been conducting a daily sit-in for more than five years to emphasize “we are not going to let them destroy our ocean to build another military base.” He says “we will be glad to see Futenma go, but not at the price of substituting it with another base in our backyard.

Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, has been another reluctant supporter. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party which lost significant numbers in the Democratic Party of Japan’s sweeping election win last August, Nakaima has begun shifting his position a bit, and met with Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, who told him “I am optimistic something can be done to move the base off Okinawa or out of the country.” She has threatened Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama with pulling her party out of his fragile coalition if he allows Futenma to remain on Okinawa.

Mainland prefecture governors, meanwhile, are making it clear they’re not interested in accepting American military facilities in their prefectures, or hosting U.S. military training exercises. The governors of 29 prefectures say diplomatic and security policies should be left to the central government, while another 15 agree change is necessary to cut down on the burdens borne by Okinawans. Every one of the prefecture governors said ‘no’ when asked if they could accept U.S. facilities.

The U.S. State Department is waiting to hear if Japan is going to send its Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, to Washington to discuss the Futenma issue. “There are discussions” according to Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman, when asked about a possible Japan visit to try calming the troubled waters over Tokyo’s refusal to agree to moving forward with the Futenma replacement airfield. He says such meetings could take place, but no dates have been set. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late last month told Japan’s Ambassador to the United States to let his government know she wants a decision made by May, and really wants Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to live by the agreement made by the Japanese and American governments in 2006.

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