IWAKUNI, Japan — American military airstrips are generally off limits to commercial aircraft, even in the States.

But local Japanese and Yamaguchi Prefecture officials are hoping to reopen Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station’s runway for commercial activities.

The push for renewed shared use comes as Japanese workers contracted by the Japan Defense Facilities Administration are building a new offshore runway for the base.

The new $2.2 billion runway won’t be completed for about six years. But that hasn’t deterred local officials from voicing their interest in commercial use of the base’s existing runway as well as the strip under construction.

They say there are precedents for joint use at Iwakuni and Misawa and that commercial airline access would boost the local economy.

“With an era of globalization and borderlessness approaching, improvement of transportation and information communication systems are playing increasingly important roles when strengthening community cooperation and interaction and pursuing community independence,” Yamaguchi Prefecture officials said in a written statement issued last week.

Federal U.S. and Japanese officials on the Joint Committee of the Facilities Adjustment Panel of the Facilities Subcommittee are considering the request. The Joint Committee has met twice on the issue, once in February and once in July.

Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton declined to comment specifically on the proposal.

“The air station’s policy is that the feasibility of Iwakuni commercial use is being discussed bilaterally through the Joint Committee process,” Upton said.

“It comes down to a local community desiring the convenience and potential benefits from commercial flight availability and the USMC’s desire to ensure operational requirements aren’t negatively impacted.”

Many Japanese officials here think joint use would fill the local airport “vacuum.”

According to Hiroo Matsunaga, head of the government office working to promote the return of a civilian airport in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the closest commercial airports are in Hiroshima, which is 60 miles away, and Ube city, 93 miles away.

Local officials have been working on getting airport access since 1991, he said.

“It has been a longtime desire of the economic circle and the residents,” added Takashi Suehiro, an official of Iwakuni city’s office promoting the reopening of commercial airport operations at the Marine Corps base.

Initially, local officials sought to build their own airport. But that plan was abandoned in 1998 because of the lack of space and funding.

Japanese officials saw the Marine Corps field as an alternative, and they noted the air station served as a commercial airport from 1952 to 1964, Suehiro said. They also noted there are precedents for joint use at Misawa Air Base and other Self-Defense Forces bases.

Matsunaga says commercial access to the Marine Corps runway would be an economic boon.

“It is expected to have an economic ripple effect in the economy of approximately 8 billion yen [about $74 million]” by 2010, Matsunaga said.

His estimate is based on a 2002 study jointly conducted by Yamaguchi Prefecture and Iwakuni city, assuming 11 round-trip flights between Iwakuni and Tokyo, Sapporo and Okinawa.

But not all local officials believe airport access will be the boon Matsunaga predicts.

Iwakuni city Councilman Jungen Tamura, an anti-U.S. base activist, thinks there are risks.

“I am not against the commercial airlines flying into Iwakuni, but to say it will have an economic effect of 8 billion yen is questionable,” Tamura said. “The economic and industries circle has no problem using bullet trains to visit Tokyo which takes four hours. … And there could be a big drawback, such as burden in construction fees or some kind of compensation.”

There is not much demand to fill 11 round-trip flights to Iwakuni, he said, arguing the study has inflated figures to bolster the city and prefectural position.

Designed for safety

Japanese and U.S. officials say once complete the new runway will be one of the best on the western Pacific Rim.

The new 8,052-foot runway — located about 1,000 yards off shore from the existing Marine Corps runway — will include safeguards against natural disasters, such as earthquakes.

Those safeguards were ordered after two major temblors shook Japan: the magnitude-7.3 Great Hanshin Earthquake of Jan. 17, 1995, near Kobe that killed 5,273 people and the March 24, 2001, magnitude-6.4 Geiyo Earthquake near Hiroshima.

“After the earthquakes happened, it was determined that there was a need for ground construction improvement,” a Defense Facilities Administration official said last week.

Those improvements have delayed airstrip completion from 2005 to 2009 and jacked the price up $361 million.

Nothing is wrong with the current Marine Corps runway, a Marine spokesman said. The offshore runway is designed to reduce the possibility of a plane crash into one of the densely populated nearby neighborhoods or a petroleum plant.

It also will reduce local residents’ exposure to aircraft noise, he said.

Last week, a small group of visiting U.S. Naval Civil Engineer Corps officers toured the sprawling offshore runway construction site by boat.

A 2.2-mile conveyor system moves reclaimed dirt from a nearby mountain to the ocean floor there. Gigantic pile drivers ram steel cylindrical posts — supports for the above-water concrete deck of a new wharf — into the ocean floor.

Construction is divided into three phases, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers runway project engineer Paul Regan said.

The first phase is reclamation of 24.1 million yards of fill dirt for the foundation of the runway. This phase also includes construction of a deepwater port and support facilities.

The second phase will be reconstruction of the Marine Corps station’s ordnance area, and the third phase will be the building of the runway and 1,000-foot overruns at each end.

Japanese contractors will complete all three.

“The role of the Americans in all this is to basically tell them about all the facilities and their functions so the Japanese will know what has to happen,” Regan said. “We just make sure we get what we can actually live with as far as what buildings are needed, the size of the buildings and things like that.”

Compared to other experiences he’s had with long-term construction projects, Regan said the Japanese work is very good.

“When we get through with this thing, it’s going to be a top-notch facility, that’s for sure,” he said.

author picture
Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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