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GINOWAN, Okinawa — Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha returned from the United States last week expressing confidence he’s found a few allies in his bid to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Iha told Stars and Stripes his weeklong lobbying trip assured him many officials in Washington, D.C., share his desire to close the air base, which sits in the center of his city.

Iha was elected on a platform that included closing MCAS Futenma within five years, regardless of whether an alternate site could be found. Okinawans long have campaigned for reducing the “footprint” of the U.S. military bases covering a fifth of the island. In 1996 the bilateral Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) adopted a plan to close some bases and consolidate others, reducing land they occupy by 21 percent.

Part of that plan included closing MCAS within seven years if an alternate site could be found. After years of political wrangling, a site was chosen in waters off Okinawa’s northeast coast at Henoko, next to Camp Schwab. But a sit-in by anti-base activists has stalled an environmental survey; construction is said to be up to 15 years.

That’s too long, Iha said, adding that he believes others share his frustration. “Every one of the officials and individuals I met during the trip, including members of the Congressional Commission on Review of Overseas Military Structure, expressed a need for the early solution of the Futenma problem,” he said. “Their responses were more than what I had anticipated.”

The Futenma issue and other proposals to reduce the U.S. military presence on Okinawa have been the topic of several recent Japanese media reports. While U.S. and Japanese officials met in San Francisco in early July, several news reports speculated the naval air station at Atsugi would be moved to MCAS Iwakuni and MCAS Futenma would be melded into Kadena Air Base. Also under discussion, the Japanese media reported, is ending the rotating deployment of 3,000 Marines from U.S. bases to Okinawa and moving several thousand more Marines from Okinawa to mainland Japan.

However, official spokesmen from both sides downplayed the reports.

“The United States and Japan consult regularly for routine alliance management as well as, more recently, part of U.S. efforts to realign its global force,” said Marine Maj. James W. Bell, spokesman for U.S. Forces Japan. “To help encourage frank and honest discussion, it wouldn’t be appropriate to speculate on these ongoing discussions.”

“No concrete proposals were made from the U.S. side at the meeting in San Francisco,” said Hatsuhisa Takashima, director general for press and public relations for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The talk is in the stage of exchanging opinions. The fundamental policy of both governments concerning the Futenma issue is to proceed with the plan that complies with an agreement made by SACO.”

But Iha said, “A senior Japanese embassy official in Washington told me that Japan and the United States have intensively discussed the closure of Futenma during the past year. I was told that it is one of the most important issues being considered in the Pentagon’s review of overseas military bases. … And Pentagon officials expressed their mistrust of the present schedule for constructing a new military airport, which requires another 16 years to be completed. They indicated frustration over the prolonged construction period.”

Iha said he told Pentagon officials Henoko never would be a suitable alternative. The planned base, to be built on reclaimed land and a coral reef, would threaten feeding grounds of the endangered dugong and other marine life, he said — and building an additional military base next to another one “does not help to reduce the burden of hosting a vast military presence.”

The mayor said the U.S. officials he met did not seem as wed to the Henoko plan as their Japanese counterparts. “They want to close Futenma as early as possible by moving operations elsewhere,” he said.

“It was very encouraging to know that U.S. government officials, including military officials, are making efforts and positively working toward the closure of Futenma air station.”

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