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New U.S. demands for Henoko irritate local officials

Date Posted: 2006-11-10

A tenuous relationship between the American military and Okinawa over a new airfield to be built at Camp Schwab has turned sour with word the U.S. wants to expand the approach system for the runways.

An agreement between Japan and the U.S. last April to build the facility in the Nago area in northern Okinawa has been met with skepticism and irritation, but tempers cooled until recently, when the U.S. proposed adding approach control system lighting at both ends of the two runways. The new airfield was approved as a replacement for Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in densely populated Ginowan City in central Okinawa.

The new airfield is to have two runways constructed in a V-shape, with both ends of each runway stretching into the waters on both sides of Cape Henoko. The runways and their approach systems were engineered to avoid aircraft passing over populated areas of Ginoza Village and Nago City’s northeast coast. One southern runway was to be used for takeoffs, while the second would be used for landings.

Both were designed to factor in the varying winds over the island’s northeast coast.

The U.S. now wants to increase the runway lighting system to include approach control systems on both ends of each runway, a move that would allow aircraft to take off and land from either direction on either runway. Informed sources say the initial agreement did not specify exactly what the flight routes for the new airstrip were to be. Arguments from the very beginning, though, were that the flight patterns were to avoid populated areas for safety reasons. It was with that understanding that northern Okinawa officials in Nago City and Ginoza begrudgingly agreed to the proposal.

Local officials are unanimous in their opposition to the latest proposal for the two 1,800 meter long runways. “There has been no official announcement yet,” says a Nago City Office official, “but if it is true, we are against it. Planes must never fly above the residents’ houses.” Nago’s mayor, Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, echoed the sentiments.

Ginoza Village mayor Hajime Azuma is very upset, as his village is beneath the new suggested flight pattern. “I have heard this for the very first time, and hope it is not true,” he says. “We did agree to build the V flight line, but with understanding it would not fly above the residents homes. The Japanese Government should keep its promises.”

Gubernatorial candidate Hirokazu Nakaima was firm as well. “I didn’t agree from the beginning about this V-shaped flight line, and if there is more to it now, it is out of discussion. There is no way I can agree, and I have other plans to protect citizens safety.” His principal opponent, Keiko Itokazu, accused the two governments of misleading Okinawa. “I am upset,” she says, “because the Japanese and American governments have done nothing to think about local residents life. I am not going to agree at all to bring a new base to Camp Schwab. Take away the base from northern Okinawa to someplace else.”

Current plans call for the replacement airfield facility to be operational by 2014.

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