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Futenma move to Henoko still on the horizon

Date Posted: 2011-05-26

Japan and the United States have reaffirmed their commitment to relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from central Okinawa to the sparsely populated Henoko district of Nago City in northern Okinawa.

“We made very clear both of our intentions of the U.S. and the Japanese governments” to continue forward with current plans, was the way the assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs explained the latest announcements in Tokyo. Kurt Campbell was visiting the Japanese capital for meetings with Kazuyoshi Umemoto, Chief of the Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau, and Nobushige Takamizawa, Chief of the Defense Ministry’s Defense Policy Bureau.

The Japan-U.S. agreement calls for closing Futenma, located in densely populated Ginowan City, and replacing it with a new facility in a coastal area of Nago City, using the Marines’ Camp Schwab for the shore portion of the airfield. A pair of V-shaped runways extending into Oura Bay is currently on the books. The plan originally conceived and approved in 2006 and reaffirmed in May 2010 by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, has met with strong opposition in Okinawa.

The big question looming is the timeline, which now calls for the replacement airfield to be ready by 2014. Campbell told a news conference in Tokyo the two countries are coordinating to fix the schedule of a U.S. visit by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Campbell will be returning to Tokyo in several weeks to continue high level talks, signaling his intention to discuss the schedule of the so-called two-plus-two security dialogue that brings together the two countries’ foreign affairs and defense ministers.

Japanese sources are reporting, however, that the decision has already been made to back off the 2014 deadline for relocating Futenma. Those sources say Japan and the United States will make it official during their upcoming two-plus-two meetings, changing the deadline to “as soon as possible” without setting a specific date. The foreign and defense ministers of the two nations will also finalize the configuration of the new airfield.

Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, has bluntly stated he’ll not support relocating Futenma to Henoko, a decision that seemingly has the backing of Okinawa’s citizens. Fierce opposition has been mounting on the part of both politicians and residents, who want Futenma to be moved outside Okinawa Prefecture. Futenma Marine Corps Air Station will, in the meantime, continue operations as it has been. Futenma flight operations have been strongly opposed by on safety and noise grounds, with residents staging frequent protests to be heard. Nakaima was reelected last November when he ran on campaign platform that included promises to work for relocating the base outside the prefecture.

Japan’s Defense Minister took a changed stance on the 2014 deadline this week, as well. Toshimi Kitazawa reversed Tokyo’s position, saying “It’s not good to keep as a promise something which has no viability no matter how you look at it.” Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto agrees. He explained it’s unlikely Governor Nakaima will give the green-light for necessary land reclamation in time to meet the 2014 deadline. Nakaima has approval authority for all land reclamation in the prefecture.

Plans to move Futenma to northern Okinawa were first developed in 1999, with specifics spelled out in the 2006 bilateral deal on realigning all U.S. forces in Japan.

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