Iwao Kitahara

Iwao Kitahara ()

NAHA, Okinawa — Japan’s new defense facilities chief says his agency needs to enhance communication with communities that host Okinawa’s U.S. military bases.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon in Naha, Iwao Kitahara, 58, said it was important to better inform residents of activity on the bases, especially when live-fire exercises are scheduled.

He also stressed that Japan will go forward in building a replacement facility for the newly opened U.S. Special Forces urban warfare training facility on Camp Hansen. The current complex cost $3.8 million to build and was funded by the U.S. Army, but the Defense Facilities Administration Agency, bending to concerns of residents of the Igei community, adjacent to the range, decided to replace it with a new facility in a more remote area of the base.

Igei residents have staged a daily protest at Camp Hansen’s main gate, claiming the complex is too close to their community. They say they suffer from the loud explosions and gunfire when there is live-fire training at the range and they fear stray bullets might pose a danger.

“Visiting the urban warfare training complex made me again realize the need for moving the facility from the present location as soon as possible,” Kitahara said. He visited the complex Wednesday and received a briefing from U.S. military officials on safety measures.

“I was told that the military would make safety a priority,” he said. “However, the training is required for the military to perform its mission.”

Kitahara said he requested training at the site be kept to a minimum until a new complex is constructed.

Until then, he said, the system used to notify local communities of scheduled training must be improved. At present, U.S. Forces Japan gives the DFAA a week’s notice of scheduled training, but specific times and dates are not announced.

Kitahara was named to the post earlier this month. He was the Okinawa bureau head of the agency from 1998 to 2000. He took his new job at a time when Okinawans are anxiously awaiting the results of negotiations between the U.S. and Japan to realign U.S. forces in the country. The DFAA is the Japanese agency tasked with negotiating any changes in basing with the host communities.

He said a special general election for Japan’s lower house will delay an interim report on realignment that was expected next month.

“I believe that it would move back to October,” he said.

One of the places Kitahara visited during his trip was the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and the adjacent Okinawa International University, where a Marine helicopter crashed a year ago.

Plans to build a replacement base for Futenma off the coast of northeastern Okinawa have hit snags that have delayed closing the air station, which was a key part of a bilateral 1996 agreement to reduce the U.S. base footprint on Okinawa by 21 percent.

Proposals to move Marine air operations elsewhere still are on the drawing board, Kitahara said.

“What is most important is to close the air station at [the] earliest possible date,” he said. “However, no concrete plans are available as yet.”

The press conference wrapped up a scheduled three-day tour of Okinawa, during which Kitahara toured military bases and the towns that host them and met with U.S. military and Okinawa officials. Kitahara said he added a fourth day to his visit and will tour the Marines’ Northern training area on Thursday.

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