CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Irabu Town assembly members paid a visit to Tokyo on Tuesday to press their case for turning over the local airport to the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
The town includes the islands of Irabu and Shimoji, midway between Okinawa and Taiwan. Shimoji Airport has a 9,842-foot runway that was built in 1973 and used to train commercial airline pilots. The U.S. Marine Corps occasionally uses the airport to refuel helicopters on Okinawa-Philippines runs.
During a meeting with Defense Agency Director General Yoshinori Ohno, the assembly members said the islands are threatened by China’s growing military power. They cited the incursion of a Chinese nuclear submarine into Okinawan waters in November and the current dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands.
Last week the town passed a resolution inviting the Air Self-Defense Force to establish a permanent presence on Shimoji. The resolution, however, specifically requested the U.S. military not be a partner to its use.
Ohno welcomed the town’s request, but said it was a “sensitive issue” that required more study. He did not respond to any specifics of the request.
However, at a press conference Tuesday, Ohno said he thought sharing some of the U.S. military bases in Japan with the Self-Defense Force would be beneficial to both countries.
“As a general concept, if it happens, it would be beneficial for U.S. taxpayers in various aspects and, at the same time, for Japan it would be one of the ways to reduce the burden of the local communities,” Ohno said.
Requesting Ohno’s approval of turning over the airport is part of a move by the town to avoid a merger with towns on neighboring islands. Because of the prefecture’s stagnant economy, several towns are merging in order to cut operating costs.
During their meeting with Ohno, the town assembly members asked him to help them obtain about $9.5 million for an incinerator and waste-disposal site.
Irabu is just 250 miles from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, considered by China to be a renegade province.
The town assembly’s action last week came after several visits since June by Japan and U.S. military officials to Shimoji, an airport official told an Okinawa member of Japan’s Diet when he visited the island Tuesday.