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Governor, Defense Agency, dance around Futenma

Date Posted: 2007-01-08

Okinawa’s new governor is softening his anti-airfield stance declared during the election campaign season. The chief of Japan’s Defense Agency is, likewise, uttering words of conciliation.

Sources this week are hinting that Governor Hirokazu Nakaima is on the verge of reversing opposition to the new airfield slated for Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa. They says he’s promised a decision by Spring, but only days ago said “we cannot ignore the proposed transfer (of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station functions) to the coastal area. We need to consider changing the conditions.”

Those conditions, largely the location and V-shape pattern of the two runways designed to be built over both Camp Schwab land and landfill in Oura Bay, are contentious to the Prefecture government, despite having been approved by the local government in Nago City, which is directly impacted by the proposal.

Fumio Kyuma, Japan’s Defense Agency Director General, is sending Nakaima signals he’s willing to be flexible, too. While telling the governor’s staff he’ll continue to work with them, he’s told his own staff to study the feasibility of revising the agreement.

Defense Agency officials are disgruntled by their boss’ bending, which they fear will undo years of negotiations with the American government. “The relocation will not move forward,” one agency source stated flatly, “if the plan is changed at the desires of the governor.”

The U.S. and Japan agreement last year centered on building an airfield to replace Futenma, using reclaimed land off the northern Okinawa coast at Camp Schwab. The airfield would have two runways built in a V-shape, with all ends extending over the water. As defense agency officials struggle with finding a plan that will appease the governor, one suggestion has been to move the runways slightly to the southwest of the current design. Another thought is to step up the construction tempo, which now calls for completion by 2014. Nago City has already agreed to the plan, but the Prefecture opposes it. The Prefecture has final decision rights on all airport construction involving landfill.

Nakaima had assured supporters during pre-election campaigning he was opposed to the new airfield, but tempered that position shortly after being elected. “I would not totally rule out the transfer,” he told his constituents, “if the government produces a program which guarantees preventing dangers and accidents to northern Okinawa, as has happened in Ginowan City.”

Ginowan is home to Futenma, site of an August helicopter crash two years ago. No local citizens were injured or killed when the heavy lift Marine transport chopper plunged to earth at Okinawa International University just outside the hilltop Marine base.

Since the election, as Nakaima has been sending suggestions to the Defense Agency he was willing to talk, and Kyuma has been responding, The U.S., remains opposed to any changes to the agreement made with Japan last May.

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