NAHA, Okinawa — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Sunday made it official: Marine air units will be staying on Okinawa.
While about 400 protesters gathered outside the Okinawa Prefectural Office building Sunday morning, Hatoyama apologized to Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, saying regional security concerns gave him no choice but to follow through on the bilateral agreement reached with the U.S. in 2006 to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and move the air units to Okinawa’s northeast shore.
According to Japanese media reports, the United States and Japan reached an understanding Saturday on going forward with the 2006 plan with minor modifications.
Hatoyama told Nakaima the current security situation in East Asia, especially in light of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by a North Korean submarine in March, made it essential the Marines remain on Okinawa.
“There was no alternative,” Hatoyama said concerning his eight-month search for a way to move the Marine base outside Okinawa.
The U.S. and Japan have been searching for ways to close Futenma since 1996. An agreement hashed out in the wake of massive anti-base protests fueled by the Labor Day gang rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl the previous year called for finding another location on Okinawa for the Marines. But that proved difficult and several plans were considered and abandoned before a 2006 agreement to realign U.S. troops in Japan.
Wearing a green, long-sleeved Okinawa kariyushi shirt, the prime minister seemed undisturbed by the amplified chants of the crowd six floors below. Apart from the protesters, 35 members of the Prefectural Assembly staged a one-hour sit-in at the front of the assembly hall, each wearing yellow, the color for the anti-base movement, and holding signs that read “Anger” in Kanji.
“I am here today to frankly tell you I have no alternative but to ask you to undertake the burden (of hosting the base),” Hatoyama told the governor. “As a result of negotiations between the U.S. and Japanese governments concerning the air operations, there was no choice but to move them within Okinawa.”
It was the first time Hatoyama publicly mentioned moving the Marines to a new airstrip to be built on Camp Schwab. He called his decision “painful but necessary.”
“I am well aware of the anger and disappointment of the people of Okinawa,” he said. “However, under the present security circumstances in East Asia, including the Korean peninsula, instabilities certainly remain and we cannot afford to mar the deterrence power of U.S. Forces Japan, including the Marine Corps.”
Nakaima calmly replied that Hatoyama’s plan was “extremely disappointing and difficult to accept.”
Following the meeting, Hatoyama traveled to Nago, where Camp Schwab is located, to discuss his plan in a closed session with island mayors. In the afternoon he met with Okinawa business leaders in Naha.
Mayor Susumu Inamine of Nago told reporters after the Nago meeting, that the mayors were united in their resolve to continue fighting against the relocation.
“There is no way for us to accept the prime minister’s U-turn on this issue,” he said.
Japanese media outlets, citing unnamed government sources, reported a broad outline of the relocation plan was adopted Saturday during a meeting between Hatoyama, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada Saturday. Okada also met U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos to brief him of their decision. A public announcement is expected to be made Friday in Tokyo.
Details of the plan are to be worked out with U.S. officials before President Barack Obama visits Japan in November, according to the reports.
Hatoyama’s plan reportedly calls for accepting most of the 2006 agreement. Two runways are to be built straddling the Henoko Peninsula and extending on landfill into Oura Bay.
New to the plan, according to press accounts, is a proposal to share the new facility with the Japan Self-Defense Force, halting live-fire and other training over uninhabited islands and water areas east of Okinawa, and moving some air exercises to undisclosed bases on the Japanese mainland.
Opposition to the Camp Schwab decision is not unanimous. On Friday Henoko, the fishing village adjacent to the base, adopted a resolution endorsing the project, as long as the runways are placed as far offshore as possible to reduce noise and Tokyo increases economic subsidies to the area.
The exact location and size of the runways are among the details to be hashed out during the next five months, according to the press reports.
Hatoyama’s decision to review the 2006 Futenma plan just after he took office in September put the project on hold. Under the agreement, the new air facility is to be finished in 2014. An environmental assessment of the area began three years ago, but was put on hold pending Hatoyama’s review. His modified plan will not necessitate a new study.
Once the air units are moved from Futenma, which sits in the middle of Ginowan’s urban sprawl, more than 8,000 Marines and their families are to be transferred to Guam along with the major Marine commands on the island.
Also, most of the U.S. base property south of Kadena Air Base eventually be closed and returned.