Hundreds on Okinawa rally in opposition to possible military use of airport
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — More than 1,000 people rallied Sunday on Miyako Island in southern Okinawa to protest any use of a local airport by military aircraft.
The rally was held after Japanese news reports suggested Japan’s Self-Defense Air Force and the U.S. military would share adjacent Shimoji Island’s runway, now used for local civilian aircraft and to train Japanese commercial airline pilots.
“We should not allow the airfield to become a facility for killing people,” Hirara Mayor Akira Ishimine said during the rally, according to a city spokesman. “There is a plan for Self-Defense Forces to deploy its forces to Shimoji Island and also there is a report that operations of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma are to be moved to Shimoji until a new military airport at Henoko is completed. That was the reason for this rally.”
A spokesman for U.S. Forces Japan spokesman declined comment on the media reports Monday.
“While there have been rumors and reports of many possible changes in U.S. and Japanese force structure resulting from the Defense Policy Review Initiative,” said Gunnery Sgt. Robert L. Hall Jr., “it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of these ongoing discussions.”
A Japan Self-Defense Agency spokesman also declined to discuss plans for Shimoji Island saying, “Is there such a plan or not? We are not in a position to make comment on the issue as we are totally not aware of it.”
He said a new National Defense Program outline, expected soon, would address any major shifts in Japan’s defense policy.
“It is still being reviewed by a project team of ruling parties and it faces negotiations with the Finance Ministry,” the spokesman said. “The outline is expected to be approved by the Cabinet soon, but we cannot speculate when it will be.”
The Aug. 13 crash of a Marine helicopter on Okinawa increased the islanders’ fears of hosting a military base, the Hirara town spokesman said.
“U.S. Marine Corps helicopters have been using the airfield for refueling at least once or twice a year for the past few years,” he said.
“The initial premise for constructing an airport here was that the Shimoji Airfield is used only for commercial purposes.”
The U.S. Marine Corps occasionally uses the airport to refuel helicopters en route to exercises in the Philippines.
However, an Air Force-funded 2001 Rand Corp. study suggested Japan give the United States more permanent access to the airport in return for cutting the number of Marines on Okinawa.
The report noted Shimoji Island, one of the southernmost islands in the Ryukyu Archipelago, is better positioned for a quick response to trouble between Taiwan and China.
The island is just 250 miles from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei.
No action has been taken on implementing the Rand report’s recommendations, which drew sharp protests from Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine and other prefecture officials.
A small group of islanders has turned out the past four years to protest the landing of Marine helicopters and refueling aircraft during the annual spring Balikatan exercises in the Philippines.