GINOWAN, Okinawa — The U.S. and Japan announced Friday that they will move ahead with plans to build a new Marine air facility on Camp Schwab on Okinawa to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
The announcement ends eight months of political disagreement between the two countries as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama searched for a way but failed to keep a campaign promise to move the Marine air units off Okinawa.
Discontent from Okinawan leaders and members of Hatoyama’s ruling coalition, however, remained strong after the joint statement was released.
In the statement, signed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Japan Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, the two countries confirmed their commitment to steadily implement a 2006 agreement to realign U.S. troops in Japan.
Key to that 2006 plan is closing Futenma — amid Ginowan’s urban sprawl and moving the Marine air units to the Henoko Peninsula on Okinawa’s rural northeast shore.
The plan also calls for moving key Marine command elements, including 8,000 Marines and their families, from Okinawa to Guam once the new air facility is built. The target date for the transfer is 2014. Also, most of the U.S. base property on Okinawa south of Kadena Air Base would eventually be returned.
The Futenma relocation plan is what U.S. officials had insisted upon since Hatoyama took office last fall and began looking for an alternative that would remove Marine air units off Okinawa altogether. U.S. military officials had said it was critical to keep Marine ground and air units in close proximity should they be called to respond to a regional emergency.
That concern was repeated in Friday’s joint statement.
“Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the Alliance,” the statement reads. It did not specifically mention the sinking of a South Korean warship by a North Korean submarine in March or recent large-scale Chinese Navy exercises in international waters near Okinawa.
Hatoyama spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama by telephone Friday morning concerning the relocation.
“President Obama and I reaffirmed to further deepen U.S. Japan relations,” he said, according to an NHK transcript of a press conference after the 20-minute call. “In that sense, President Obama expressed gratitude for arriving at a conclusion on the Futenma issue.”
Friday’s joint statement confirmed the new air facility will include at least one 1,800-meter runway extending into the waters of Oura Bay. The number of runways and the construction method are to be worked out by the end of August, in time for a meeting of Clinton, Gates, Okada and Kitazawa in the fall.
The four also agreed that Okinawa bore “a disproportionate burden related to the presence of U.S. forces” and measures will be taken to relocate some U.S. military training outside Okinawa, including Guam and Japan Self-Defense Force bases in mainland Japan.
Okinawa hosts about half of the 47,000 U.S. troops and 75 percent of the base property used solely by U.S. forces in Japan.
The statement also mentions expanding the joint use of bases in Japan and returning a training area off Okinawa’s east coast.
Tokunoshima, a small island some 125 miles northeast of Okinawa was specifically mentioned as a site for relocating some training. The three island mayors have opposed any such move and more than half of the island’s 27,000 residents attended a rally in April opposing any move of the Marines to the island’s airport.
Gov. Yuichiro Ito of Kagoshima Prefecture, where Tokunoshima is located, said Friday that he remains opposed to the plan.
“It is extremely disappointing that Tokunoshima was specifically mentioned in the joint statement as a proposed site,” he said in a statement.
The agreement is stirring the political pot in Tokyo, where members of Hatoyama’s own ruling coalition oppose any relocation of the Marine air units on Okinawa.
The Social Democratic Party had long-threatened to leave the ruling coalition if the Marines stay. Kyodo News reported Friday night that Hatoyama has decided to dismiss Mizuho Fukushima, head of the SDP and Minister of Consumer Affairs, after she continued to refuse to go along with the plan. Hatoyama faces a tougher task of getting Okinawans to accept his decision.
On Okinawa, the governor, prefectural assembly, and all the island’s mayors are opposed to the Futenma relocation plan. Tens of thousands of Okinawans have attended rallies protesting any new base construction on the island.
“I will never enter into any negotiations on this issue,” Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, where Camp Schwab is located, said during a telephone interview Friday afternoon. A rally against the base was scheduled in Nago Friday night.
Opponents of moving the Futenma units to northeast Okinawa have pledged to continue their fight.
“This decision does nothing but further add to the pain of the Okinawa people who have been suffering from this excessive burden,” said Sakae Toyama of the Anti-Heliport Council, whose anti-base group and others have been staging a sit-in at the Henoko port since April 2004. “It is an absolute betrayal of the people of Okinawa by the Hatoyama government.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.