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Shimojijima still in spotlight as replacement for Futenma

Date Posted: 2005-05-16

The isolated southern Okinawa Prefecture Shimoji Island is being considered a somewhat ideal spot for a military airbase, yet the citizens have very mixed opinions.

Earlier this year Shimoji residents, who were scheduled to merge their Irabu Town with nearby Hirara and three communities on Miyakojima, backed out and briefly endorsed a plan supporting a military presence.

Shimojijima’s popularity centers around its 3,000 meter runway. There’s been no commercial air service to the island for a decade, but Japan Air Lines and other commercial carriers use the island airport as a pilot training facility. The U.S. military last year asked permission to use the airport as a refueling stop for aircraft heading to the Philippines.

As the community’s 7,000 residents held heated town meetings on inviting the Japan Self Defense Force to use the island, concerns surfaced that the military use clauses would expand to the American military, and citizens reversed themselves and voted against welcoming a military presence, and reinstated the merger with its neighboring islands.

The Japanese government, feeling pressure as plans for the Henoko Airport near Nago City are stymied by environmentalists and political opposition, is looking for alternate solutions to the Futenma Air Base relocation dilemma. Talks are still taking place, and different promises are floating about Shimojijima receiving large grants from the central government coffers in exchange for military base operations in its backyard.

Apprehensions in the aftermath of a Chinese submarine discovered lurking in Japanese waters near Shimojijima have unnerved residents, and talk about the possibilities of conflict between China and Taiwan are surfacing in conversations. One community leader says simply “This issue is not over. It will emerge again even after the new community is created.”

The new Miyakojima City will become October 1.

Meanwhile, a 2001 report from the Washington Rand Corporation think tank continues to stir conflicting interests on the Shimoji basing option. The report, “S and Asia – US’s New Strategy and Military Posture”, calls for implementing Shimoji as a military airbase, but only in conjunction with downsizing the U.S. Marines presence on Okinawa.

The report spelled out a compelling need to keep Kadena Air Base, with the Shimoji base as a contingency backup. It saw little need to keep Marines on the island any longer, given the ease of moving combat forces to an emergency locale in short order.

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