CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Hot dogs and fireworks are back!
In the face of sequestration cuts, the Defense Department last year decided to cancel friendship-building events, during which the base gates in Japan were opened to the public.
Now — recognizing that the events offer the local community a window into life aboard American installations — base leaders have decided the show must go on.
Military officials say the food-, music- and firework-filled events are integral to community relations and in cementing the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Despite their purported importance, defense officials touted the savings in suspending the use of appropriated funds meant for community relations last year. Officials in Japan indicated cost savings in the tens of thousands of dollars. Officials from U.S. Forces Japan said the decision to hold the events was ultimately left up to base commanders if they could operate them within Defense Department guidelines, which meant not using appropriated funds.
In Japan, there were cancellations last year at Yokosuka Naval Base, Yokota Air Base, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and Kadena Air Base, but not at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Misawa Air Base, Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler, which encompasses eight installations on Okinawa.
“In implementing DoD policy which was put out in response to sequestration, facilities across the world had to make tough, difficult choices,” said USFJ spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. David Honchul.
This year, the events are back, albeit altered slightly, after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed a memorandum in September outlining a new balanced approach to community relations for fiscal year 2014. Hagel hopes small tweaks to the program will save $1 billion during the next 10 years through reducing the number of flyovers, port visits and static aircraft displays around the world.
“When the Department’s budget was subjected to a sequester in 2013, the Department made the decision to severely restrict outreach spending,” spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “Secretary Hagel recognizes that even in this uncertain fiscal environment balance remains key, and community and public outreach is a crucial Departmental activity that reinforces trust and confidence in the United States Military and in its most important asset — people.”
At Yokosuka Naval Base, home to the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, there are six open base or friendship day events held each year, some in conjunction with the city of Yokosuka, which shares in some costs, base spokesman Sean Kelly said. Two events were canceled in 2013. The Navy spent $28,000 on these four events, which drew 84,000 visitors, about 30 cents per attendee.
This year, Yokosuka will feature a full program of events. Several already have occurred, but they still plan to have Yokosuka Friendship Day on Aug. 2, the Negishi Bon Festival on Aug. 16 and the Yokosuka Mikoshi Parade scheduled for sometime in October.
The base also plans to have a Fourth of July fireworks event this year put on by Morale Welfare and Recreation. They will open Kosano Park for public viewing during their fireworks festival.
Likewise, the Navy will open its doors in Sasebo on July 5 for “America’s Heart & Soul,” which was not an open base event last year, according to base spokeswoman Terri Kaltenbacher.
The event will feature ship tours, crafts and kids’ activities, food booths, carnival games, live entertainment, a Hometown USA parade and fireworks, she said. The event is expected to draw 10,000 to the tiny base in southern Japan with an estimated cost of $30,000.
Base officials are not sure whether the car “Drifting” open base event will occur again this year. Negotiations are ongoing.
Events were canceled last year at robust Air Force bases in Yokota, located outside Tokyo, and Kadena on the island of Okinawa. Those are back on this year, officials said.
Kadena Air Base held its AmericaFest on June 29, after the popular biannual event was postponed last year, Air Force officials said. It included fireworks, static displays of the F-15 Eagle, P-3 Orion, and KC-135 aircraft and was headlined by the rock band 3 Doors Down. The $52,000 cost was budgeted by Pacific Air Forces, according to base spokesman Master Sgt. Jason Edwards.
Tens of thousands of locals are expected to converge on Yokota Air Base on Sept. 6-7 for its Friendship Festival, Air Force officials said. Like Kadena, the festival features aircraft displays, American food, live music and fireworks on the final day. Yokota’s $53,000 budget covers visiting aircrews, flight demonstrations, utilities and sanitization, while private organizations and nonappropriated funds will cover the costs of food and entertainment for the event.
“We are slightly limited this year with regards to how much appropriated funds we are authorized to spend in executing our festival,” said 374th Airlift Wing spokeswoman Kaori Matsukasa. “The committee is carefully reviewing these costs in order to offer a fiscally responsible event very similar to previous years’ festivals.”
Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni’s annual Friendship Day festival was back on May 5 after a two-year hiatus and was attended by 50,000 people, officials said. However, unlike in years past, it did not feature an air show, rather a static display of Marine Corps F/A-18 and KC-130, among other aircraft, in addition to Japanese Self Defense Force aircraft.
Marine officials did not respond with the event’s cost by press time.
Japanese officials on Okinawa were mum Wednesday when asked about the benefits of the festivals or their opinions of them.
“The flight line fair is an opportunity for Ginowan citizens, as well as people from outside the city, to see the base, which access is not normally possible,” said a spokesman for the Military Affairs Office of Ginowan, where Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is located. “While it is difficult as the city to evaluate how people take the event, we are fully aware of the good intention of the military.”
Okinawa is one of the few places in Japan where the American presence is protested. The island is home to a disproportionate amount of American troops compared with the mainland, at approximately 30,000.
Still, the Japanese flock to the base when given the opportunity.
This year, the Marines have already hosted the Camp Foster Festival, Camp Schwab Festival and the popular MCAS Futenma Flightline Fair, which drew 70,000 visitors to the tiny controversial air station last year, Marine officials said.
The Camp Hansen Festival is slated for Sept. 6-7, the Camp Kinser Festival on Oct. 4-5 and the Camp Courtney Christmas and Holiday Festival for Dec. 6-7.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.