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Japan wants U.S. to realign Military forces from Okinawa

Date Posted: 2004-10-14

A proposal is on the table to move Okinawa-based Marines off the island.

Japan’s Central Government has formally asked the United States to begin shifting its forces from Okinawa to other countries and to mainland Japan.

Government sources say the 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, should be rotated away from Okinawa. The 3,000-member unit, normally stationed at Camp Schwab near Nago, has been temporarily stationed in Iraq since February.

U.S. military officials have indicated they already were considering the idea of not returning the 4th Regiment to Okinawa after it completes Middle East assignments. It is part of the 18,000 members of the 3rd MEF.

Another Japanese proposal offered the United States calls for civilianizing Yokota Air Base, presently America’s key base on the mainland. Misawa Air Base in northern Japan is a joint use military-civilian airport.

American plans for shifting the Army’s I Corps to Camp Zama from Fort Lewis, Washington was rejected by Japanese authorities. I Corps oversees more than 40,000 active and reserve forces who’d respond to incidents in the Pacific region. The U.S. wants the headquarters, with 500 personnel, to be stationed in Kanagawa Prefecture as a central location to allow combat responses within 48 hours.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has told reporters over the past week he’s in favor of moving troops from Okinawa to other locations in Japan, as well as out of the country. He says there’s no validity to the argument moving troops would undermine stability in the region. Koizumi also promised to have his staff work with local governments to reach agreements on relocating the troops from Okinawa.

Hrioyuki Hosoda, Chief Cabinet Secretary, called the moves a part of a global military realignment plan. He notes Marines make up the marjority of U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa.

The senior Marine in the Pacific is taking a positive approach to the Japanese plans. Marine Lieutenant General Wallace C. Gregson says he hopes his Marines will be able to share bases with Self Defense Forces if the moves to mainland Japan occur. "If you want to move forces from Okinawa to the mainland, we should look to do that in a manner that enhances our ability to operate with the Self-Defense Forces," he told reporters.

"In particular, we've advocated for some time combined bases. Instead of having a U.S. base and a Japanese base side by side, put them all under the same commander. "It's Japan. So it should be a Japanese commander."

Gregson points to the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture and its Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture as examples of U.S. Marines and the SDF integrating their operations. Gregson was quick to note that while "we are open to any location, but it's up to the government of Japan".

Camp Fuji is near the East Fuji Maneuver Area, and is used jointly by U.S. forces and SDF troops. Iwakuni Air Station shares the runway with the Maritime Self-Defense Force's air base.

Responding to reporter queries in shifting large troop units to other Pacific locations, such as Guam and Hawaii, Gregson said he didn’t think it was a great idea.

"We are certainly open to consideration of any options, but it's also got to start with what is the basic strategic question we are trying to resolve," he said. "The rise of this war on terrorism has not changed the great geopolitical issues in the Pacific, and as long as those remain and as long as both of our nations, the United States and Japan, see a purpose for U.S. forces to be in the Western Pacific, then I think the bases in Japan are absolutely essential."

Gregson hopes the 1996 agreements on Okinawa will be kept in place, while acknowledging there must be some force structure changes to reduce the burden on the local population.

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