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Japan waffling on making Futenma decisions?

Date Posted: 2010-07-22

Politics is proving bigger than Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government, with senior officials sending mixed signals about whether an August deadline will be reached by the United States and Japan on details of the planned move of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from Ginowan City to northern Okinawa.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa has suggested this week that delays may be inevitable due to the focus on November’s Okinawa gubernatorial election. “We must place importance” on the upcoming election, he said, noting the governor “has the heaviest responsibility for Okinawa.” He says the Kan government doesn’t want to force Okinawa’s citizens to accept a final plan without argument, saying “I think it is likely we cannot tell anything for sure until after the election.” Shortly after being elected Prime Minister, Kan said Japan and the U.S. would work out relocation details, including specifics of the location and construction methods, by late August.

Kitazawa countered concerns that a delay could cause trouble with the U.S.-Japan relationship, but he says “I believe the U.S. side understands the political situation in Okinawa well.” Other cabinet members aren’t on the same page with Kitazawa, saying the issue’s still open. “That isn’t something definitively decided,” says Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku. Government sources say, however, that money earmarked for fiscal 2011 research on possibly transferring some American military training to Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture has been scrubbed. An agreement between Japan and the United States in May included moving some training off Okinawa, citing Tokunoshima, mainland Japan Self Defense Force bases and Guam as possible sites. Kitazawa says, though, it’s too early to decide “whether or not we should give up” on moving the training activities.

Expected high costs of building supply and maintenance facilities, as well as barracks, on Tokunoshima are a factor, as is the vehement opposition of Tokunoshima residents to the idea. Kitazawa says a plan for moving American training exercises off Okinawa would be completed by the end of August. Current plans only include using Self Defense Force bases used previously for American and joint training exercises.

Some mainland Japanese media sources are saying Japan has already suggested to the United States that planning be stopped for now. Nago City has a City Assembly election upcoming September 12th, and the gubernatorial election for Okinawa Prefecture comes November 28th. The proposed airfield relocation site is Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of Nago City, and Japanese government officials are said to be worried about an angry backlash from Okinawans to the plan. Reports say Japan wants to stop all talk with the U.S. on the issue, including the meetings involving technical elements, runways specifics and construction methods to be employed.

Only days before the latest talk of stopping discussions surfaced, the Democratic Party of Japan was talking about modifying the relocation plan, reducing the two V-shape 2,500-meter runways to a single 1,800-meter runway. Tokyo, the reports say, hasn’t totally abandoned the idea of the V-shape runways, but thinks the single runway would be easier. Observers say that idea wouldn’t make things easier, but would instead stir up additional arguments against the move because one runway would bring more noise and safety concerns, and also involve flights over Nago City itself. Another idea, one floated by then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, called for building the facility on a pile-supported platform. It was rejected by the U.S. because it would have required a new environmental assessment.

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