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Planes will move to Iwakuni as government rejects local voter feelings

Date Posted: 2006-03-17

More than 48,000 Iwakuni City citizens went to the polls on a gloomy, chilly Sunday to express their opinions about a plan to move US Navy planes from Atsugi to their community.

By an eight-to-one margin, they said no, rejecting a government plan that called for relocating the Navy’s air wing assigned to the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk from Atsugi to Iwakuni. A plan developed last Fall called for shifting the 57 aircraft and about 1,600 personnel to Iwakuni to balance American troop levels more evenly across Japan.

Only hours later, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi turned the Iwakuni elation to agitation as he rejected their call to abandon the plan. “There is no change,” he said, telling reporters any local resident would oppose any plan to add American troops and equipment to their community. “If you carry out a plebiscite anywhere,” he points out, “I’m sure residents will oppose the bases. That is what is difficult about security issues.”

Sunday’s plebiscite was simple, with only one question before voters: Do you accept a plan to relocate 57 planes from Atsugi to Iwakuni. Some 43,433 voters said no, while 5,369 voted in favor of the move. Iwakuni’s City Assembly had passed a resolution last year against the move.

Residents turned out at 42 city locations, with final tallies showing more than 58.68% of the eligible voters casting a ballot. Opponents cited “noise from the jets and a likely rise in crime due to more Marines.” One 68-year-old Iwakuni City resident, Kimiko Yamakawa, said the relocation plan “will do more harm than good.”

Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara was vocal in his displeasure over the planned move, saying that’s why he called for the referendum. It was the first held since the U.S. and Japan agreed to realign the troop structure within the country.

It has no legal or binding status, and Toranosuke Katayama said it wasn’t appropriate. The powerful Liberal Democratic Party official said “The state is responsible for Security.” Katayama is secretary general of the ruling LDP’s caucus in the House of Councilors.

Iwakuni’s Municipal Assembly even opposed Sunday’s plebiscite, wanting to wait until the government made formal decisions. There were other against having a plebiscite too, many arguing the moves should be made in the interest of economics. “The issue is far more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ according to a restaurant owner in downtown Iwakuni City. He and others say money is desperately needed to boost the local economy, and that money would flow from the increased hosting responsibilities.

Still others didn’t like having only the single question to speak about. They wanted more options. There are already 3,500 troops, including 3,000 U.S. Marines at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, together with 53 aircraft.

With more than 87% of Iwakuni’s residents being so vocally opposed to the planned agreement, which is supposed to be signed before the end of March, Prime Minister Koizumi expressed hopes this week that other communities won’t follow the example. “We will work hard not to let that happen,” he promised, adding “we will strive to gain understanding of all affected communities.”

Overshadowed by Iwakuni’s Sunday plebiscite was a rally in Zama City, home to the U.S. Army’s Japan headquarters. Zama City is located just south of Tokyo. More than 2,000 citizens protested plans to increase the troop population at Camp Zama, and said they didn’t want to see the base facilities upgraded either.

The massive realignment plan has been developed over more than a year’s worth of consultations between Tokyo and Washington, and has involved both Defense and State Department / Foreign Ministry specialists. The goal is to restructure the U.S. troop presence, now more than 50,000, to reduce burdens on Okinawa and other communities that have borne a disproportionate share of the load.

Okinawa hosts the largest U.S. airbase outside the United States, as well as a massive Marine continent including III Marine Expeditionary Force and 3rd Marine Division. Nearly 15,000 Marines call Okinawa home, and officials want to cut that number nearly in half with a proposed move to Guam.

That move, though, is contingent on many other cogs in the agreement wheel moving smoothly. The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk is to be replaced by a nuclear powered carrier at Yokosuka, and the new home for Navy aircraft is considered imperative. Increased missions for the U.S. headquarters at Camp Zama brings more troops from the United States, and bases at Misawa, Yokota and Kadena are being studied for changes.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe says all plans are moving forward. “Basically,” he says, “if the U.S. and Japan complete negotiations, that would be the final conclusion” of the whole issue. He says local lobbying, protests and demonstration and plebiscites will alter the central government’s decisions.

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