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Iwakuni leaders get assurances Marines won't relocate from Okinawa

By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 14, 2012

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — No U.S. Marines from Okinawa will be moving to Iwakuni as part of ongoing realignment efforts, Japanese officials said Tuesday.

Yamaguchi Gov. Sekinari Nii and Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda met top-level government officials in Tokyo on Monday to voice their opposition to weeks of media reports that 1,500 Marines would be moved to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture.

Japanese Minister of Defense Naoki Tanaka denied such discussions with the U.S. government had even taken place.

“We have no intention at all to move additional Marines to Iwakuni,” Tanaka said.

Marine Corps officials in Okinawa and Iwakuni declined to comment Tuesday. A Defense Department spokeswoman could not be reached for comment.

Under a 2006 bilateral agreement, the U.S. pledged to send 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam and relocate the Futenma air station to a newly built air station in northern Okinawa. The move has been met by stiff opposition from Okinawans and has been a nuisance for the Japanese government for years.

A review of force structure in the region is under way, which could mean changes to the total number of Marines slated to move to Guam, the two allies said last week. As a result, rumors had begun to circulate that more Marines would move to Iwakuni.

Nii and Fukuda met separately with Tanaka and Minister of Foreign Affairs Koichiro Gemba on Monday, according to a spokesman for Yamaguchi prefectural government. Nii and Fukuda said beforehand that Iwakuni was already burdened enough with a scheduled move of U.S. carrier-borne fighter jets from Naval Air Facility Atsugi and threatened to hold up the sale of land for U.S. military housing to facilitate that move if more Marines were moved to the region.

Like Tanaka, Gemba also vowed not to allow more Marines to be shifted to MCAS Iwakuni. However, despite their pledges, Nii and Fukuda said they remained wary after the meeting. Both Nii and Fukuda told reporters they would keep a closer eye on negotiations between Washington and Tokyo in the future, including bilateral meetings scheduled for April.

They also said they would continue to hold up the land sale until they were certain the Marines would not come.

“Until doubts become all clear, we have to withhold the sale,” Nii said.

Despite the uneasiness, Fukuda expressed relief.

“I felt that doubts were cleared up to a certain degree,” he told reporters, according to an Iwakuni city spokesman. “I will ask the government to address the issue in a way so that it won’t undermine a relationship of mutual trust.”

Kyodo news agency reported last weekend that if the Marines do not move to Iwakuni, they will stay on Okinawa.

burkem@pstripes.osd.mil

sumidac@pstripes.osd.mil

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