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Hatoyama, key ministers split on Futenma

Date Posted: 2009-10-29

Japan’s defense and foreign ministers seemingly are in agreement that Futenma Marine Corps Air Station—or its replacement to the north—should remain on Okinawa, while the Prime Minister continues to signal there’s no rush on deciding what to do about the controversial air station.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to resolve the Futenma issue, saying there’s plenty of time to study the matter and make a decision. Speaking from Hua Hin, Thailand, where he was attending a conference, Hatoyama said the question of what to do about Futenma could wait a while, perhaps even until next summer. The Prime Minister has been on record that he’d like to see Futenma moved off Okinawa.

Two of his top ministers, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, are singing a different tune, both calling for Futenma to remain on Okinawa. The positions are critical, because relocating Futenma from downtown Ginowan City to a sparsely populated site in northern Okinawa is linked to a plan that would realign the 47,000 American troops now in the country, including moving about 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to the American territory of Guam.

Okada has met with the Chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen about Futenma and the entire realignment issue, and now says relocating Futenma from Okinawa “is not an option”. While some politicians –both Japanese and American—have been pressing Japan to make a firm decision on Futenma prior to U.S. President Barack Obama’s November 12-13 visit, Okada says that simply isn’t likely, and “starting from scratch on other ideas would not serve the best interests of the people of Okinawa.”

Admiral Mullen had pressed Okada to move forward with relocating Futenma to Camp Schwab in the Henoko District of Nago City in northern Okinawa, echoing the sentiments of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said essentially the same thing. Gates had called all options other than moving Futenma north “politically untenable and operationally unworkable.”

Okada’s personal position is that Futenma operations should be shifted to Kadena Air Base a dozen kilometers north of Ginowan City. “I think it’s an option,” Okada says of a consolidation of operations with the Air Force at Kadena. He says such a move would be accomplished very quickly, since runways are already in place. The 2006 Japan-U.S. Agreement that stipulated relocating Futenma to Camp Schwab would place two V-shape runways on reclaimed land in Oura Bay. Okada says not having to build runways would be more fiscally expedient and a faster solution.

Defense Minister Kitazawa is now speaking out about the plan to shift Marines from Okinawa to Guam, an action that would happen only in conjunction with the new airfield at Henoko. He says the new government headed by Hatoyama has already studied the “agreed upon plan” with its considerations of keeping the base in Okinawa, outside Okinawa but within Japan, and outside Japan. Kitazawa is being quoted as saying now “I think it would be fairly difficult to come up with an alternative plan.”

As confusion appears within the Hatoyama government, the local Okinawa position also appears to be shifting. Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, who has been on record as favoring the Futenma shift to northern Okinawa with minor adjustments of runway locations, is now signaling he really would rather see Futenma moved out of Okinawa. “I thought that moving Futenma to another Okinawa location was unavoidable,” the governor now says, “but there is no change in my view that relocating it out of Okinawa is still the best option.”

He says the Okinawa government would back any central government plan to move Futenma out of Okinawa, but warned that support would be linked only to a sound and thoughtful concept. Nakaima warns at the same time that the political elements of the Democratic Party of Japan should not use his words as any endorsement of alternate relocation sites within Okinawa for a U.S. military airfield. If it’s to be in Okinawa, the governor says, he thinks Henoko is the right place.

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