- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

NAHA, Japan — Despite a 1996 agreement that the United States would return a major military facility to Okinawa prefecture within five to seven years, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and its 1.75-mile-long runway remains in the middle of residential areas of Ginowan, a city in southern Okinawa, taking up 25 percent of its space.

Some say it may not move for about 15 more years.

For decades, Ginowan residents have complained about matters such as the earsplitting noise from the station and accidents caused by U.S. military activities.

The air station “has not moved even one millimeter, while residents are still caught in a hostagelike situation,” said Yasuhiro Miyagi, a city council member in Nago City, in the northern half of Okinawa’s main island.

The return of the air station was the highlight of the pledge made by Washington and Tokyo through their joint Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO). Japan, however, must provide an alternative facility elsewhere.

The 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen stirred strong feelings against the American military presence on the island. To placate local anger, the United States and Japan created SACO, through which they promised to make the U.S. military presence less oppressive to people in Okinawa, the most remote of Japan’s 47 prefectures from the country’s four main islands.

Tokyo and Okinawa’s capital, Naha, settled on a large sea-based facility off Camp Schwab, near Nago City. Tokyo promised to pump money into the city. But in a 1997 nonbinding referendum, Nago City residents vetoed the plan and then-Gov. Masahide Ota also turned it down.

In elections in 1998, Mr. Ota was beaten by Keiichi Inamine, a business leader backed by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and Tateo Kishimoto was elected mayor of Nago City, defeating an antibase candidate. The new governor and mayor agreed to accept the offshore military airport plan with some conditions, such as a 15-year time limit on use of the proposed facility.

Washington and Tokyo said such a time limit jeopardized construction of a floating airport for the U.S. Marines, and the Japanese government appears to be in a bind because the time limit was approved during a Cabinet meeting.

Mr. Miyagi said Mr. Inamine’s idea of the 15-year time limit is impossible.

To break the deadlock, a group of U.S. and Japanese analysts proposed that while a 15-year limit is taken into account, the terms of use for a new Marine Corps air base should be reviewed every five years and consideration be given to the world situation.

“The governor made an anguished decision, and a 15-year time limit was meaningful then,” said Akikazu Hashimoto, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo and Japanese chairman of the group Okinawa Question 2004.

“But security considerations have changed dramatically, especially since the September 11 terrorist attacks,” Mr. Hashimoto added.

Meanwhile, an official with the Cabinet Office in Tokyo, who did not seem concerned about the issue of a time limit, said, “Construction [of an alternative facility] is now going forward.”

Now, other objections are being raised against an offshore military air base. Because the proposed 1.5-mile-long base would be built into tropical sea surrounded by leafy woodland, nearby residents, environmentalists and scientists are complaining. They say the construction will destroy coral reefs and sea-grass beds, and threaten the survival of rare species, including dugongs, sea mammals thought to have inspired sailors’ tales of mermaids.

Although these concerns of locals are rarely echoed in the rest of Japan, relocation of the Futenma air facility has seized the attention of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to “save the dugongs.”

U.S. and Japanese environmental groups sued the Pentagon in September at the U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif.

Mr. Miyagi, who also is director of the Save the Dugong Campaign Center, said the group never thought that environmental-impact assessments would support construction of an offshore Marine airfield.

“It’s absolutely impossible,” he said. “It’s the worst place” to build a military base.

Mr. Inamine told The Washington Times that consideration of Okinawa’s environment is one of the conditions for accepting the project. “I believe it’s important to conduct the assessments correctly, although it takes time,” he said.

The Cabinet Office official said the Japanese government will “conduct a sufficient environmental study and, if necessary, the area’s environment will be protected.”

According to polls conducted in November by Kyodo news agency and the daily Ryukyu Shimpo, published in Naha, 9.6 percent of Okinawans agree with the government’s plan to build an alternative facility near the east coast of Nago City, while 48.6 percent said Futenma should be relocated outside Japan.

The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s No. 1 daily, reported yesterday that Washington had asked Japan informally to reconsider the plan to replace the Futenma air station with an alternative facility in Nago City. The front-page story said Tokyo is reluctant to do so. During his visit to Okinawa in November, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reportedly expressed concerns about safety aspects of the Futenma station, apparently because of its densely populated location, and about the delays of building a replacement facility.

Okinawa, the main island of Okinawa prefecture and the Ryukyu Islands chain, has a rich natural environment in the north and densely populated areas in the south, Mr. Miyagi noted. “Wherever an alternative facility goes, it will run into problems. The government should not undertake to relocate it within Okinawa.”

Twenty percent of Okinawa Island is reserved for use by U.S. military forces.

Reports surfaced in Washington yesterday that the Pentagon has completed plans for a post-Cold War realignment of U.S. military forces worldwide. Mr. Rumsfeld has been sketching out such plans since before the war in Iraq. The accounts yesterday said that as many as 15,000 troops of the 100,000 in East Asia could be pulled back, but Agence France-Presse reported that a Pentagon spokesmen would neither confirm nor deny the scope of the cuts, because the redeployment was under review and no decision had been taken.

Hiroshi Hosaka, a professor of sociology and communications at the University of the Ryukyus, said military bases are treated as NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) hazards, such as waste incinerators and nuclear facilities.

The Japanese government has rarely proposed an option of relocating a U.S. military facility from Okinawa to any other prefecture, and many Japanese outside Okinawa seem oblivious that relocation of the Futenma air station reportedly will cost them a trillion yen ($9.5 billion).

“When it comes to a foreign military base, money is poured into it without limit,” said Mr. Hosaka, adding that Japanese “taxpayers should consider whether construction of a U.S. base is worth it and how their taxes are being spent.”

“The issue of the U.S. military presence is not an issue of Okinawa but of Japan as a whole,” Mr. Inamine said. “Security is not an issue of Okinawa but of Japan. I’m now asking other Japanese if it’s OK to keep hosting these American bases in Okinawa.”

Some Okinawans say Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi hasn’t shown much interest in resolving the issue of the U.S. military presence since taking office.

The Cabinet Office official denied this, saying: “Prime Minister Koizumi regards the issue as one of the most important.”

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