CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Okinawa government pressed its case for the removal of a Marine Corps air base and reduce the American military presence here during a visit Wednesday by two influential U.S. senators.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Jim Web, D-Va., traveled to Japan and Guam this week to get an update on the planned realignment of U.S. military forces in the region, including the controversial U.S.-Japan agreement to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma farther north on Okinawa.
The move of Futenma is a key provision in a plan that also calls for the transfer of 8,600 Marines and their families to Guam around 2014. But Okinawans have strongly opposed keeping the air station on the island, saying instead it should be moved somewhere else in Japan because the island prefecture has been unfairly left to carry the weight of U.S. military bases in the country since World War II.
“We are here to learn, to listen and to ask questions,” said Levin, who declined to answer questions from the media following a meeting with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima in the prefectural capital Naha. Levin chairs the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and Webb is also a member of the committee, which oversees the Department of Defense and its plans for shifting the military in the region.
The lawmakers started their Pacific trip with a visit with lawmakers on the territory of Guam on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Levin and Webb were briefed by the U.S. military on Okinawa and traveled to the relocation site for Futenma in the northern city of Nago.
The senators steered clear of any comments on the future of Futenma both during public and private discussions with Nakaima, according to Japanese prefectural officials who briefed the media following the meeting.
“The relocation site for the Futenma facility is in everybody’s self-interest,” Levin said. “We are here to look at firsthand whether there is progress in how we can advance that goal.”
In February, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he expected Japan to finalize initial design plans for the runway and other components of the Futenma replacement facility in Nago, but those designs have so far failed to materialize.
For the past two years, the plan has appeared to stagnate as Japan elected a new liberal government in Tokyo that opposed locating the air station on Okinawa, but then suffered defeats at the ballot box. The last prime minister resigned after he could not break Japan’s agreement on Futenma with the U.S.
Now, the massive earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan has shifted much of the country’s attention away from the controversial plan, which was formally approved in 2006 by the government in Tokyo despite the strong opposition from Okinawa. Meanwhile, the disaster and U.S. military response has done little to soften the attitudes of many Okinawans toward the Futenma relocation and the many U.S. bases here.
“Relocating the Futenma facility within Okinawa will be nearly impossible,” Nakaima told the senators, according to officials. “What I strongly suggest is that both the Japanese and U.S. government seek a relocation site outside Okinawa, somewhere else in Japan.”
Prefectural government leaders told the senators that this island has been “excessively burdened” by 74 percent of the U.S. military bases located in Japan yet it only comprises less than 1 percent of the country’s land.
The prefecture, along with unanimous support from all of Okinawa’s 41 municipal governments, has called for the immediate closure and return of the air station and the rejection of any plan to relocate it on Okinawa, said Zenshin Takamine, the prefectural assembly speaker.
“The Okinawan people are suffering,” Takamine told the visiting senators.