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Mike Mochizuki, seated at left, an expert on U.S.-Japan security issues, talks to Japanese reporters Tuesday on Okinawa. He said he's glad to see the two countries have agreed to move a substantial number of Marines from the island -- 11 years after he suggested such a move.

Mike Mochizuki, seated at left, an expert on U.S.-Japan security issues, talks to Japanese reporters Tuesday on Okinawa. He said he's glad to see the two countries have agreed to move a substantial number of Marines from the island -- 11 years after he suggested such a move. (David Allen / S&S)

GINOWAN, Okinawa — An expert on U.S.-Japan relations says plans to reduce the number of Marines on Okinawa and close a Marine Corps air station are finally on track.

Addressing a group of journalists and military public affairs officers here Tuesday, Mike Mochizuki, holder of the Japan-U.S. Relations Chair at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, said it is good to see the U.S. and Japan are finally doing what he first suggested 11 years ago — closing MCAS Futenma and moving a large block of the Marines stationed here off the island.

However, if he had his druthers, he’d speed up the process.

Mochizuki is co-author of “The Okinawa Question and the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” a paper written in 1996, in the wake of massive anti-base protests by Okinawans after the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by two Marines and a Navy corpsman on Labor Day 1995.

At the time of the 1996 paper, printed as an op-ed piece in The Washington Times, Mochizuki was with the Brookings Institution, a senior fellow in the Foreign Studies Program.

There was a dramatic drop in public support in Japan for the security relationship with the U.S. in the wake of the rape, Mochizuki said. “We looked closely at the basing of U.S. forces in Japan and were startled to discover how many of the forces were stationed on the small island of Okinawa,” he said.

He and co-author Michael O’Hanlon were particularly concerned about the danger posed by MCAS Futenma, in the heart of Ginowan. They called it an accident waiting to happen — which proved true in August 2004 when a CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter crashed on the grounds of Okinawa International University, adjacent to the base.

They suggested the base could be closed and some 10,000 Marines moved back to the United States without diminishing the security of the region.

A bilateral agreement in 1996 called for Marine air operations to be moved elsewhere on Okinawa by 2007, but disputes over the location of a replacement base and the efforts of protesters to hamper an environmental survey of an off-shore base construction project scuttled the project.

However, there was no plan to cut the number of Marines on Okinawa until an agreement signed last May that tied the move of 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam to completion of a new air station on Camp Schwab in rural northeast Okinawa by 2014.

“Some 11 years later it’s personally gratifying to see the U.S. and Japan are moving exactly in this direction and that there is a clear plan in place for reducing the Marine presence,” Mochizuki said.

However, he agreed with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima that it would be best to accelerate construction of the Futenma replacement facility. He also said more Marines could be moved from Okinawa once the threat of North Korea is satisfactorily negotiated.

“For better or worse, Okinawa lies in a very geo-strategically important location,” he said. “There’s no question that the U.S.-Japan alliance will play a key role in shaping the security environment of the region.”

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