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Futenma’s future home could change locations

Date Posted: 2005-02-11

A thaw in the icy stalemate over when to close Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, and where to move it, may be in the works.

New reports from both the U.S. and Japanese government camps indicate both may be willing to reevaluate their positions on moving the controversial airfield to Henoko on the northern end of Okinawa. An agreement dating back to 1996 called for moving Futenma to a new location within 5-6 years of a suitable site being located and an airport suitable for handling the military aircraft constructed.

Japan is reportedly willing to talk about adopting a new position during talks upcoming in Washington later this month. One date being bantered about is February 19 for the two Defense Departments to discuss the matter. Japanese government and ruling coalition officials are hinting a major change in positions could come within a matter of “several months”. Japan had earlier refused an American request to review the Henoko airport plan. The official agreement specifies the new airport is to be in Okinawa Prefecture, and now there’s speculation an already operational airport on a neighboring island, Shimoji Island, could be the compromise site. Another potential relocation would be to nearby Kadena Air Base.

The August 2004 crash of a Marine Corps helicopter near Futenma, onto the Okinawa International University campus, has spurred demands the airbase be closed. Thousands have demonstrated against Futenma, arguing the next time a helicopter or airplane crashes, it could kill many in Ginowan, instead of the good fortune of having only three U.S. crewmen injured when the CH-46 Sea Stallion went down.

Early last year, the U.S. proposed examining the Henoko plan, since there’s is still no firm date for when the relocation can take place. A new airport is projected to take at least 10 years to design and complete. Another roadblock to the new airport near Nago are opposition demands that U.S. use of the joint civilian-military base be limited to 15 years. Washington has forcefully rejected that restriction.

The Japanese government is opposed to any change, because it has already begun a ¥100 billion economic development project for northern Okinawa and Nago, where the airport is to be located.

To this point, the central government has so far been reluctant to change the Cabinet decision making Nago the relocation site, because it has already launched a 10-year 100 billion yen program on economic development of northern Okinawa, which had been offered in a bid to win local support for the relocation plan. If Japan officially brings up the revision for discussion, it could possibly lead to significant changes in the 1996 bilateral accord.

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