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Plan to station Marine choppers on Ie Island meets fierce opposition

Date Posted: 2005-04-07

Ie Island’s 5,300 residents don’t want the helicopters and Marines now at Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on their island.

The Japanese government says there is no plan for such a move. The Marine Corps is remaining quiet on the reports, which were initially published by The Japan Times Sunday, then further reported by Okinawa media.

The purported plan is to transform Ie Island, located five miles off Okinawa’s northwest coast near Nago, into a replacement base for the hotly contested Futenma. Ie Island is already home to a U.S. military base, with a 2,000 meter runway. It’s now used primarily for parachute training. The present base occupies roughly eight square kilometers, about one-third of the island.

Transforming Iejima Auxiliary Air Field into a replacement base for Futenma would resolve the dilemma faced by Japanese leaders who find the planned Henoko replacement airport mired in politics, economics and environmental issues. The runway at Iejima is the same length as the proposed runway at the new airport.

Ie Village mayor Seitoku Shimabukuro is fiercely opposed, concerned such a move could bring danger to his citizens. Recalling the August 2004 crash of a Marine Corps helicopter in Ginowan, just outside Futenma, he expressed fear it could happen on his island. His constituents agree, gathering Monday to voice their demands, the most important of which is “we don’t want the Americans.”

Under the reported plan, American troops and aircraft now at Futenma would move several directions, with the helicopter units going to Ie Island. The larger tanker refueling aircraft would move north to a Japanese Air Self Defense Force base, Nyutabaru Air Base in Miyazaki Prefecture, or to a Maritime Self Defense Force base, Kanoya Base in Kagoshima Prefecture. The move would ease pressures on the government, which is under fire to close Futenma in light of safety issues.

That same plan would turn Futenma over to the Japanese Self Defense Force for continued operation, rather than the land being given back to the owners, as some want.

The Self Defense Agency in Tokyo’s spokesman is saying the reports are unfounded, but many people don’t believe it. Ie Island residents don’t, and passed a resolution demanding the proposal be withdrawn because it would “force local residents to pay a great sacrifice” in safety.

Futenma has long been a controversy, with the U.S. and Japan agreeing nearly ten years ago that troops would move as soon as a replacement base was identified. Expected to take 5-7 years, the troops are still waiting. Henoko was picked as a replacement site in 1999, but there is still no construction because of environmental concerns and demonstrations by activists opposed to American presence.

Ie Island had been considered initially as a replacement site, but rejected because of size, water shortages and history. Ie Island was the first site captured by invading American troops in April 1945.

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