Japan defense offical endorses plan for Marine air station off Okinawa
January 20, 2005
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japan’s top defense official — visiting Okinawa Tuesday to talk with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine and local officials about a possible realignment of U.S. bases on the island — endorsed current plans to build a new Marine Corps air station in waters off northern Okinawa.
Standing atop a hill on Camp Schwab, overlooking the ocean site designated for the new air station, Defense Agency Director Yoshinori Ohno told reporters he understood why some Okinawans want Marine air operations to relocate off Okinawa.
“I am well aware that there are people who are against building a new airport,” he said during a brief, impromptu news conference. “However, I believe that carrying out the ongoing plan is the best way to reduce the burden that [the] people of Okinawa have shouldered … this is the only way for us to move on.”
Local residents and environmental groups strongly oppose and are attempting to block the offshore air station, which is planned eventually to replace the Marine Corps air station at Futenma.
Ohno’s first stop was a late-afternoon visit at the Marines’ Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa, where he observed the area designated for the offshore air station.
Asked about polls that show a majority of Okinawans oppose the new airport, Ohno said the site was carefully selected, approved by local officials and “chosen as a result of consultation with the Okinawa prefectural government.
“This is the only path we should move on, and we must make an effort to reach its goal as soon as possible,” he said.
However, in a nod to local opponents of the new facility, Ohno also said, “While giving consideration to the fact that Okinawa has been contributing to the security of Japan, we will make every effort to reduce the burden of Okinawa when we discuss transformation of U.S. forces in Japan.”
Late Tuesday he met with Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto and several northern Okinawa officials. The proposed new base, to be built about 2 miles offshore opposite the village of Henoko, is within Nago city limits. It’s to be joined to Camp Schwab by a causeway and used jointly by civilian aircraft.
Tuesday marked Ohno’s first Okinawa visit since being named to the ministerial post in September. During a news conference in Tokyo last month, he announced he will discuss the central government’s policy on shrinking the amount of land occupied by U.S. bases on Okinawa while maintaining a regional security threat deterrence.
Okinawa’s U.S. bases cover one-fifth of the island and are home to more than half the U.S. forces in Japan. About 75 percent of the land in Japan used solely for U.S. military bases is on Okinawa.
Before meeting with Inamine in Naha Wednesday, Ohno is scheduled to visit Kakazu Hill in Ginowan, which overlooks Futenma MCAS. The base, in the middle of the heavily developed city, is to be closed once the Henoko air station is complete.
However construction is forecast to take 10 years or more and a mid-August crash of a Futenma-based Marine helicopter in the city has renewed calls from some Okinawa officials to close the base before the replacement airport is finished.
Ohno also is scheduled to stop by Okinawa International University, scene of a recent helicopter crash.
He’s stated previously that the United States and Japan could begin ministerial-level talks on the possible force realignment as early as February. The so-called “two-plus-two” talks would include Ohno, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s secretary of state nominee for his second term.
No schedule or agenda for the meetings has been announced but the two sides have been meeting periodically for two years on realignment and other security matters. According to some media reports, one major theme is a proposal to relocate the U.S. Army’s 1st Corps headquarters in Washington state to Camp Zama, Japan, and possibly move a Marine infantry regiment from Okinawa to mainland Japan, where it now conducts its live-fire exercises.