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Good or bad, alternate Futenma airfield sites now popping up

Date Posted: 2009-12-11

The Japanese Prime Minister thinks Futenma Marine Corps Air Station could be moved to Guam, the governor of Osaka thinks Kansai International Airport’s a possibility, and the Defense Ministry thinks Kagoshima or Iwo Jima might fit the bill.

Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s Prime Minister who’s been dragging out the decision process on what to do with Futenma, has now floated Guam as an option. “I think it is necessary to consider whether moving the whole facility to Guam would be appropriate,” the Prime Minister says. “”The people on Guam are counting on it.”

His idea isn’t totally thought out, because questions remain unanswered about how Marines remaining on Okinawa would be taken care of if the controversial Futenma were to be moved to Guam. That “is a different issue” says Hatoyama, who’s trying to keep his political house in order while trying to resolve the entire Futenma issue.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa is heading to Guam for the next couple days to get a first hand briefing. “As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and I plan to get a thorough look”, says Kitazawa, who cautions though “It is necessary to proceed with the discussions while manking sure there’s no negative impact” on the Japan-U.S. relationship.

Toru Hashimoto, Osaka’s Governor, says he would accept relocating Futenma to Kansai International Airport, but that idea has been met with buckets of cold water. It’s mostly viewed as unfeasible by military experts, and a senior Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry official says “Military drills are impossible at Kansai International Airport, which isn’t designed for such purposes.”

Okinawa’s House of Representatives member Mikio Shimoji has visited Hashimoto, thanking him for the offer. Shimoji, the chief policymaker for the ruling coalition’s People’s New Party, has lobbied hard for moving U.S. military bases off Okinawa.

The Defense Ministry is preparing studies on alternate Futenma sites, including one to shift the airbase to Mage Island in Kagoshima Prefecture. That location is already being turned thumbs down by the U.S. military, which wants the new airfield located close to its troops and training areas. Mage Island is a long distance from northern Okinawa, where Marines are located at Camps Schwab and Hansen, with military training areas located nearby.

The idea has met with opposition from several camps. The military has considered Mage Island since 2006, not as a Futenma replacement site, but as a location for aircraft carrier-based fighter planes now training on Iwoto Island, known also as Iwo Jima. Mage Island has possibilities, including positive response from the owner of the land where the 4,000-meter runway could be built, but the plan requires the blessing of local residents, which is not considered likely.

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