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U.S. to sit quietly while Japan decides Futenma

Date Posted: 2010-02-04

Okinawan politicians continue to argue about where Futenma Marine Corps Air Station should move, even as Japanese leaders in Tokyo send mixed signals and the United States declares it will patiently wait for its Asian ally to make a decision in May.

The assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs reminded Japanese this week that the decision to shift Futenma from Ginowan City to a sparsely populated region of northern Okinawa was a joint decision between the United States and Japan, and not something unilaterally decided upon by America’s military. “We certainly understand the need for the new government to re-examine the issue,” says Wallace Gregson, who is coordinating the U.S. Defense Department handling of the Futenma matter.

Gregson says the plan approved by the two governments in 2006 was the end result of years of planning, and the Futenma element was only a small part of the agreement that would realign many of the U.S. forces in Japan. “Amidst all the focus on a single airfield, it is all too easy to forget that the realignment road map encompasses some 19 different elements involving strategic realignments of both U.S. and Japanese territories,” he said, adding “it is important to remember these agreements were not developed in a vacuum but were designed specifically with the complexities of the 21st century security environment in mind.”

Speaking to the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Gregson says the U.S. will be waiting until late Spring for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his administration to decide what comes next with Futenma. “When we say the Americans have another plan, well, our plan is based on our alliance relationships,” Gregson adds, “and if we have to go back to negotiating, we will go back to negotiating.” Still, the former three-star Marine Corps general who commanded all troops in Okinawa says Okinawa’s the best place to move Futenma. “Because all of the [Marine Air-Ground Task Force core capabilities of an air, land and sea force] elements are located in Okinawa, the Marines have the ability to mix and match requirements to meet specific requirements of any contingency, allowing for rapidly deployable and immediately employable capabilities to be made immediately available.”

Gregson notes that the “Marines are often our first responders in many contingencies, including natural disasters and emergencies” around the Pacific, and around the globe.

The Chairman of the People’s New Party Policy Council isn’t sitting back and waiting, though. Mikio Shimoji has met with the mayors of Kadena and Chatan Towns, as well as Okinawa City, trying to persuade them to back his idea of moving Futenma’s helicopter elements to Kadena Air Base while shifting the 28 F-15 fighter aircraft to Misawa Air Base in mainland Japan, with training to be done in the area of Osaka’s Kansai Airport. He contends it’s the best way of doing things, and told the mayors the noise problems for both Kadena and Ginowan City would disappear.

None of the mayors were buying the idea. Kadena Town’s Tokujitsu Miyagi, Chatan Town’s Masaharu Noguni and Mitsuo Tomon of Okinawa City listened, but rejected Shimoji’s thoughts completely. “No, NO, we don’t think it is a good idea at all,” they told him. “Do you know how much of a joke you are talking about? You can’t go staging American military intervention. You are not talking practical.” The three spoke with one accord as they explained to Shimoji “we have to protect our own residents, and that is our responsibility. We will not accept the Kadena consolidation idea.”

Opponents of the replacement airfield facility at Henoko have taken heart by the victory of Susume Inamine last month as Nago City’s new mayor. Inamine, a staunch opponent of the proposed airfield at Henoko and Camp Schwab, defeated Yoshikazu Shimabukuro by fewer than 1,600 votes in the bell weather election that many see as a signal to the Prime Minister. Opponents believe Inamine will team with Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama to reject the pact signed in May 2006. They view Inamine’s election as a clear indicator Nago City residents don’t want the base.

One protester who’s been demonstrating against the Henoko construction plan since 2003, says “the base is supposed to be 10 meters high and we won’t be able to see the islets and the tip of the peninsula from here.” Michiru Sakai, whose grandmother lives near the sprawling U.S. Kadena Air Base, joined the opposition “to stop another airbase from being built”, even though she knows there’s no way to eliminate Kadena. Her opinions are not shared by many Nago City residents, though.

A 64-year-old former policeman, Haruo Miyasato, says he voted for Shimabukuro because he wanted economic stability with base-related subsidies. “I just need the money,” says a 58-year-old taxi driver. If another base is built, I assume there will be more jobs, more consumption at shops and restaurants, and eventually, more taxi users.” Many residents are aware that the central government has already pumped more than ¥100 billion into the Nago City area, and some of those projects are still being constructed. They fear a loss of the subsidies will kill Nago City.

The incoming mayor says he’s banking on boosting tourism for Nago City to replace the money that would come from government subsidies. He wants to promote the scenic beauty of northern Okinawa, including the ocean, where the rare ocean mammal, the dugong, resides.


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