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Demonstrators demand Futenma be closed

Date Posted: 2009-11-12

Ginowan City’s anti-American mayor called Futenma Marine Corps Air Station “the most dangerous base in the world” as he led a Sunday demonstration calling for the base to be immediately closed.

Okinawa Prefectural Police say 6,000 demonstrators participated in the Sunday afternoon rally at Kaihin Park in Ginowan City, while organizers claimed the number at upwards of 21,000. No matter the number, the message reverberated across the seaside park; the controversial air base is not wanted! Mayor Yoichi Iha led a group of six speakers on stage at the rally, all calling upon Japan’s Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and U.S. President Barack Obama, to dump the plan for moving Futenma to a northern Okinawa location near Nago City’s Henoko area and Camp Schwab.

President Obama and Prime Minister Hatoyama will meet Friday and Saturday during the American President’s visit to Japan. Demonstrators Sunday adopted a resolution saying “The small island of Okinawa doesn’t need a base any more. We oppose the construction of a new facility in Henoko and relocation in Okinawa.” A 2006 agreement between the U.S. and Japan called for relocating the Futenma airfield to a to-be-constructed airbase on Camp Schwab, with a pair of V-shape runways extending into Oura Bay.

Sunday’s protest rally had plenty of local municipal leaders, but not Okinawa’s governor. The governor, returning from a visit to the United States, did not participate. Many Okinawa members of the Diet, all of who belon to the Democratic Party of Japan and its coalition partners who wrested control of the national government in a landslide during August elections, were on hand. The demonstrators’ resolution also charged the recently formed national government “not to cave in to U.S. pressure, and convey Okinawan people’s voices without hesitation to the United States in bilateral negotiations from ‘equal’ positions.”

The new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, had promised during the election campaign to rid Okinawa of the Futenma problem, but has backtracked since being elected. He now says he’ll make a decision sometime early next year what to do with Futenma. Many demonstrators have demanded he press the U.S. president on the issue during their talks Friday, but Hatoyama’s spokesman says it’s not likely the subject will be broached.

Iha and his supporters want Futenma closed and its functions transferred out of Okinawa. A Marine Corps helicopter crashed onto the campus of Okinawa International University, adjacent to Futenma, in August 2004, leading Iha to intensify his anti-military stance. He’s been unwavering in his demands, while Prime Minister Hatoyama’s Foreign Minister has clouded the issue by suggesting Futenma could be merged with Kadena Air Base. Iha doesn’t like the idea, and neither do the citizens of Kadena Town. They held their own rally on Saturday to protest Foreign Minister Katsura Okada’s idea. U.S. and Japanese leaders had considered a consolidation of the two airbases many years ago, and rejected the idea because of operational conflicts and the agitation of nearby residents.

Okinawa land is home to roughly 75% of American military installations in Japan, despite Okinawa accounting for only 0.6% of the nation’s land mass. Okinawans have long claimed they bear an unreasonable burden in Japan’s defense by having to host so many American troops and bases.

Naha City’s mayor, Takeshi Onaga, was a rally participant, and he plans to take the issue further with a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo before Obama’s arrival Friday. He also will make an appeal to both the foreign and defense ministries. The Chairman of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, Zenshin Takamine, says the burden borne by Okinawa residents “has exceeded a level acceptable” to the people, and slammed U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for “pressuring” Japan to live up to the 2006 accord. Takamine accused Gates of still considering Okinawa “a U.S. colony”.

With the shift in political power following the summer elections during which the Liberal Democratic Party was soundly defeated by the Democratic Party of Japan, a majority of Assembly members in Okinawa are now opposed to the relocation of Futenma to Henoko and Camp Schwab. Yoichi Iha has chimed in, too, calling upon Japan and the U.S. to “create new future-oriented bilateral relations” that do not include a new military airbase.

Nago resident Takekiyo Toguchi says the country “took a historic step forward” in August’s election, and has called upon both Hatoyama and Obama to “listen to local voices. By allowing construction of a new military facility, we will indirectly aid killings, so don’t create a ‘base for murder’ anymore.” He also says building the V-shape runways at Henoko would destroy the marine environment. Toguchi brought his 12-year-old son to the rally, where the youngster asked if “adults are allowed to break their promises”, referring to a 1997 referendum in Nago City where residents opposed the plan. The boy said “I hope Mr. Hatoyama will not ruin our future”.

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