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2011 in review: Futenma fills year with political intrigue

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2011-12-30

Even before the little guy in diapers was ushering in the new year, Futenma Marine Corps Air Station was on just about everyone’s tongue, wondering how the plans for relocating the controversial air base in Ginowan City would play out.

After all, Japan was insisting the plan agreed upon by the U.S. and its Japanese hosts in 2006 to move Futenma from crowded Ginowan City to the sparsely populated Henoko district of Nago City, was on track despite local objections to the project. As the months flew off the calendar, more and more evidence that Futenma’s relocation was in trouble became apparent, yet U.S. and Japanese authorities continued to insist all would be accomplished per the plan. But how was that to be, when Okinawa officials flatly insisted they’d never support the relocation?

The central government in Tokyo was hinting that money was the answer, coupled with patience in explaining to Okinawa Prefecture leaders why they needed to go along with the plan that would remove 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, and lands now occupied by U.S. bases, including Futenma, would be returned as soon as the new airfield with its two V-shape 2,500-meter runways was complete. The plan began eroding and crumbling as spring came, and U.S. senators visited Okinawa to declare their opposition to moving Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago City.

Senators Carl Levin of Michigan, John McCain of Arizona and James Webb of Virginia declared the Henoko option all but dead, suggesting instead that the controversial Marine base be consolidated with the Air Force 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base. Neither Air Force nor Marine leadership were in favor, but the idea continued to grow. And then the U.S. Congress spoke with another voice; the pen slashed millions from budget bills that would have created new infrastructure in Guam to accommodate the Marines’ move with families.

It became more complicated only days ago, when the Japanese government slashed 41.6% of the current year’s budget earmarked for the Guam transfer, choosing to grant only ¥7.3 billion toward the project that would move Marines. The whole defense spending for U.S. forces in Japan is being cut in the coming fiscal year, including the entire $150 million for Guam preliminary operations.

Japan’s world radically shook, quite literally, at 2:46 p.m. on Friday afternoon, March 11th, when an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale struck 43 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku in east-central Japan. As the quake rumbled, tsunami waves towering 40.5 meters / 133 feet began rolling across Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture. The quake was enough to move Honshu 2.4 meters / 8’ east, while shifting the Earth on its axis by something between 10~25 cm / 4~10”, causing meltdowns at three of the Futkushima Nuclear Power Plant complex’ nuclear re actors.

The National Police Agency confirmed the deaths of 15,842, injuries to 5,890, and 3,485 missing across 18 prefectures. More than 125,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, millions left homeless. The World Bank’s estimated economic cost is $235 billion, the most expensive national disaster in world history.

The tsunami’s waves were only five feet high when they lapped at Okinawa’s coastline, but the power was humanitarian. Okinawans and Americans joined together to help, with Operation Tomodachi quickly gearing up by the U.S. military to send more than 140 aircraft, nearly two dozen ships and 19,703 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to the disaster zone. The USS George Washington and USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike groups were shifted into the area, and the III Marine Expeditionary Force from Okinawa scrambled men and equipment. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma had both aircraft and helicopters in the disaster zone, performing search and rescue and disaster relief missions.

In January, Miyu Kaname was known to nobody except her family. By the end of the month, as word circulated the 13-year-old junior high school girl needed a new year, everyone on Okinawa knew who she was. Fundraisers were held to raise more than ¥180 million needed to send her to New York for a new heart at Columbia University Medical Center. The surgery to rid the Kamimori Junior High School first grader of restrictive cardiomyopathy was a success, and Miyu is now back in Okinawa.

Kevin Maher, on the other hand, wasn’t a stranger to Okinawa news media, having served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General Naha before being posted to the State Department Japan Desk in Washington D.C. It was there that he got in trouble, giving a lecture to American University students and declaring Okinawans were “lazy” and “greedy”, and “masters of deceit and manipulation” as they pumped the central government in Tokyo for more money. That was enough to get Maher fired, despite his denials of what was said at the supposedly off-the-record lecture. Maher said “the Japanese people as a whole have an ‘extortionist culture’ “ and noted “Okinawans…are masters at this.”

The murder of a 30-year-old Air Force Technical Sergeant at his off-base quarters near Camp Lester in Chatan Town sent ripples through the community. Curtis Eccleston, assigned to the 733rd Air Mobility Squadron at Kadena Air Base, was stabbed to death in February. His Brazilian-Japanese wife has already been convicted in Japanese court, and a 27-year-old airman, Staff Sergeant

Typhoon Songda launched the year’s typhoon season, the first ever typhoon to hit Okinawa in May. It brought 155mph winds and heavy rains. The typhoon, on top of record breaking floods and landslides, kept officials worrying through May after the Aja River overflowed, flooding buildings in Nagata district, while Nishihara Town found the Kohatsu River overflowing its banks and causing more damage. And then came Typhoon Muifa in August, injuring 51 during a 40-hour visit. Muifa brought record rains and winds both, taking out power to more than 100,000 homes.

The yen, Japan’s currency, put the world on edge as it gained strength during the summer, frustrating both military and civilian realms. The yen slipped to ¥80 = $1 briefly before settling around ¥75 in the fall. Predictions of a doomsday scenario where the yen would strengthen to ¥70 by year’s end haven’t materialized. The stronger yen tends to make Japanese competitiveness weaken as exporters’ overseas earnings are impacted.

Okinawans heard the news in June that the MV-22 Osprey would be coming to Okinawa’s Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said there’s little Japan could do to block the deployment of the vertical take off and landing tilt wing aircraft, which would replace CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters now at Futenma. The planes are due in September 2012, and while residents are expressing fear for their safety, the U.S. began planning a campaign to give rides to Japanese Self Defense Forces to demonstrate the Osprey’s safety.

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima was unhappy at the news of the two dozen Ospreys coming to his island. He demanded explanations from the Defense Ministry, but together with Deputy Governor Yoshiyuki Uehara never got the answers they wanted.

A new tunnel linking Naha International Airport and Naha City’s Wakasa District opened this year, shaving a dozen minutes off travel through the capital city’s downtown area. The three-kilometer road burrows beneath Naha Harbor for 800 meters, coming out and connecting by Tomari Grand Bridge. The tunnel’s been in the planning stage since 1992, and is part of a project that ultimately will link Yomitan Village to Itoman City, a distance of 50 kilometers.

Okinawa’s professional basketball team, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, powered their way to the Basketball Japan League’s Western Conference Title, easily hammering the Miyazaki Shining Suns and Osaka Evessa. The League title was a different story though, as the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix proved they were the powerhouse. The Phoenix won their second straight league title, outdistancing Okinawa 82-68. Okinawa won the title in 2008-2009 and finished third in 2009-2010.

The television era went digital in Japan this summer, blanking the American Forces Network from the free airwaves and sending hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for decoders to tune in the new signals. Analog television was completely retired, leaving the nation in the fully digital age, with high definition signals promising to fully claim the screens within a couple years.

An experiment on the nation’s expressways was called off by the Transportation Ministry after concluding it was too costly. An election campaign promise by the Democratic Party of Japan to end tolls on the country’s expressways was implemented once the DPJ took power, but it didn’t last but a few months. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism called off the freebie, citing expense. The aftermath of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami was said to be part of the reason, as the country’s leaders searched for money that could be applied to rebuilding the nation’s midsection.

Did the U.S. military use Agent Orange in Okinawa? Good question, and thus far officials don’t have good answers. The U.S. military’s denied Agent Orange was ever used in the prefecture, but former soldiers have stepped forward to say otherwise. In August, a veteran charged that he helped bury the toxic chemical while assigned here between 1968-70. The 61-year-old veteran claims he helped load a boat with drums of chemical, and one broke. While tests were being run, to more soldiers stepped forward saying they recognized the smell while working at Makiminato Service Area.

In the latest round of allegations, a veteran last month charged there was Agent Orange in the vicinity of the Hamby Army Airfield in Chatan, close to Camp Foster. The U.S. military continues to deny the allegations, and Japanese officials have said they’ll run tests of their own.

Threats of the Chinese military building strength and testing their power in Japanese waters has Japan more conscious of Chinese fishing boats, research vessels and Chinese military ships plying territorial waters. Since August, disputes have taken place in the Senkaku Islands area in southern Okinawa, and also in other regions of Japan. Several Chinese fishing vessel captains have been arrested, and several fined, but all have thus far been released.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan hung on for months, signaling he’d step down, then backing off, then reiterating he had not plans to remain as the Japanese leader. In August, Kan finally stepped down, paving the way for Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda to win a runoff and become the country’s seventh Prime Minister in six years. The 54-year-old Noda was one of five candidates for the PM position.

Four women went through a 16-hour ordeal off Ishigaki Island in September after a snorkeling several hundred meters off shore when high winds snet the four women out to see on an offshore current. A high waves advisory was in effect at the time, and the women were able only to grab some debris to hang onto during their overnight ordeal. The women stuck together, clinging to a pair of 15” square Styrofoam tiles, while a third held onto a one-meter-long buoy. All four suffered from hypothermia when taken to an Ishigaki Hospital.

Some 6,000 Okinawans converged on Naha and surrounding cities in October for the 5th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival The four0day event drew native Okinawans from North and South America, as well as other countries around the world. Since the first festival in 1990, when 2,400 participated from 41 regions in 17 countries, the numbers have swollen to this year attracting the largest number even. Most of Okinawa’s 41 communities joined in sponsoring the Uchinanchu Festival.

Proving that no politician is immune to stupidity, the senior defense official in Okinawa got his walking papers in November for making stupid remarks. Satoshi Tanaka, the Okinawa Defense Bureau Chief, had been drinking with reporters when he was asked about why the government wasn’t being clear about when to release an environmental assessment report on Futenma. Tanaka’s answer was that “before you rape a woman you cannot tell her you will rape her now.” That was enough to get him fired by Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa.

Many outraged citizens were demanding that the Defense Minister himself be sacked, but Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told the Diet’s Budget Committee “I would like Minister Yasuo Ichikawa to straighten up and perform his duties.”

After months of wrangling and wrestling with which was best for Japan’s future, the Japanese ‘Defense Ministry has chosen Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter as the country’s next-generation fighter. The F-35 survived the competition between Boeing’s F/A-18 ‘Super Hornet and Eurofighter GmbH’s Typhoon. The F-35 will replaced Japan’s aging F-4 fighter fleet over the coming few years. The fist planes will be delivered in fiscal year 2016, with a total of 40 ultimately hitting the Japan Air Self Defense Forces.

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