Navy says ships to make port call despite objections
Ishigaki’s mayor wants the U.S. Navy to find somewhere else to dock.
In response to an announcement that two minesweepers are to pull into the island city’s port for a three-day liberty call next week, Mayor Nagateru Ohama demanded the USS Patriot and USS Guardian not visit his city — and tiny island of the same name — 465 miles southwest of Okinawa and 172 miles from Taiwan.
"Ishigaki port has been declared a port solely for commercial and peaceful activities," Ohama said earlier this week at Ishigaki City Hall, according to a city spokesman. "I ask the Navy to use the military port on Okinawa’s main island, such as White Beach, which is not too far away from here."
Ishigaki’s port is extremely overcrowded, Ohama added. The island, which falls under the domain of Okinawa, is a busy tourist destination.
The Navy said the ships will stop at Ishigaki anyway.
"We’re still planning the port visit," Lt. Cmdr. Denver Applehans, a Navy public affairs officer, said Wednesday. "We understand their concerns, but we believe they are misplaced. The U.S. and Japan are allies and this visit is a natural demonstration of our commitment to their defense and commitment to the peace and security of the region."
The Navy notified the Japan coast guard last week of the scheduled port call.
The Navy planned for an April 1-3 port call, but that was pushed back by two days after Ohama objected, saying no berths were available because of scheduled port calls by cruise ships, according to a coast guard spokesman.
As part of the mayor’s campaign to keep his port free of U.S. Navy ships, Ohama also wrote to President Barack Obama.
"The citizens of Ishigaki City, who are totally alien to the military situation in the world, and on record as opposing involvement in any military activity, have been bewildered by the news," he wrote in a letter Monday.
The port visit by the minesweepers is "causing grave concerns among them and bringing much anxiety and disturbance to my city," he said.
Ohama is supported by the prefectural government.
"Whether a vessel or aircraft, we have asked the military to refrain from using a commercial port or airport on Okinawa except for an emergency case. This has been our consistent policy, which we have appealed to both U.S. and Japanese governments," said Tatsuo Oyakawa, a spokesman for the prefecture’s Military Affairs Office. "Therefore, we ask the military to refrain from the planned port call at Ishigaki."
Oyakawa said the minesweepers had planned to visit Ishigaki two years ago, but altered their schedule and stopped instead in the port of Yonaguni Island, about 79 miles west of Ishigaki, after Ishigaki officials rejected the port call.
Officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the U.S. Navy has "every right to use the port."
"Under the status of forces agreement, U.S. military vessels have the right to have access to any Japanese port," a spokesman for the ministry’s Okinawa Liaison Office said.
"When the berths are available, any vessel should have the equal right to have access to the port," he said.
"Rejecting a port visit of a vessel only because it is operated by the military is questionable from the legal standpoint."