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Talks continue, but little progress forthcoming

Date Posted: 2006-04-21

The costs of relocating American troops off Okinawa, and who’s going to pay for the move, are stymieing an agreement between the US and Japan.

Everyone agrees the 8,000 US Marines should leave the island, but Japan has balked at the US demand it should pick up 75% of the $10 billion cost.

Reports from last week’s talks in Tokyo are that the gaps were narrowed somewhat, but not enough to have a deal.

A replacement airfield for the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Ginowan is the other primary sticking point, and an old idea is resurfacing as a more palatable solution to the proposed site at Henoko, a part of Nago City. A couple of military experts are dusting off a plan suggested by a prominen Okinawa businessman Norio Ota ten years ago, saying it is superior to the Henoko airfield plan, less expensive, and could result in an operational airfield in only four years.

The plan calls for moving Futenma to the Yokatsu Peninsula area, a lightly populated area on Okinawa’s eastern coast, close to the White Beach. Ota, now honorary chairman of the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the plan still makes sense, and should be implemented because it offers flight patterns over water, rather than land. The proposed Yokatsu Airfield would be a two-runway base located close to Hamahiga Island, just 1.5 kilometers east of the Yokatsu Peninsula.

Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine, who wants the military off Okinawa, isn’t offering support for the idea. A military expert in mainland Japan, Robert Eldridge, thinks American troops should stay on Okinawa, and thinks the proposed airfield location would be ideal. ”There are numerous merits,” he says, “because it calls for merger of the functions of Futenma, Camp Kinser, the Army’s Naha Military Port, and the Japanese Air Self Defense Force Base into a single location.”

The Air Self Defense Force Base is now at Naha International Airport. Moving it would allow the airport to expand civilian domestic and international operations.

Both Ota and Eldridge say the Yokatsu location would cost only a fraction of the ¥330 billion Henoko is estimated to cost. Both expressed disappointment this week that the government isn’t more aggressively pursuing the Yokatsu option, saying they think politics is an issue, and that nobody wants to admit there’s an easier solution. Officials have already spent more than ¥1.4 billion in site surveys and environmental projects on Henoko, with millions more on political and community activities.

Ota wants the Yokatsu alternative to move forward. As a potential gubernatorial candidate in the fall, a likely action with Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga out of the race because of cancer, Ota could promote new relationships with the military and its base options. Ota emphasizes he doesn’t believe Henoko is viable even with Okinawa agreement, because of the cost and environmental issues.

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