Japanese defense chief seeks Okinawans' support of realignment plan
NAHA, Okinawa — Japanese Defense Agency Director-General Fukushiro Nukaga knows he has a tough job ahead of him to persuade Okinawa officials to support a new bilateral plan to realign U.S. Forces in Japan.
There are many social, political and economic divides to bridge, he said Wednesday after wrapping up a two-day visit to Okinawa to try to sell local officials on the proposed changes.
On Oct. 29, the United States and Japan issued an interim report on the realignment, which includes a plan to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma by building a heliport on part of Camp Schwab. The agreement also calls for moving jet fighter training from Kadena Air Base to mainland Japan and moving III Marine Expeditionary Force headquarter units to Guam.
The move would cut the number of Marines on Okinawa by about half, a reduction of some 7,000 troops. The United States is asking Japan to pay for the move, which is expected to take about six years.
Nukaga said Japan agreed to pay for the move to “make it happen at the earliest possible time.”
“I will continue my utmost effort to balance Okinawa’s economic development with the security needs of Japan,” Nukaga said following a meeting with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Tuesday. He believed the plan has yet to be adequately explained to communities to be affected by the realignment.
“So far, it has been mainly a diplomatic issue,” he said. “I am fully aware that all the communities concerned are critical of the airport plan.”
He said there were parts of the plan that have not yet been made public.
“I will explain them thoroughly to obtain the understanding of the communities before the final report is complete in March,” he said.
During a news conference Wednesday, Nukaga said Marine helicopter operations must stay on Okinawa for “operational reasons.” Building a heliport on Camp Schwab was the best alternative to a scrapped plan to build a much larger air station near the village of Henoko, he said.
Construction never began at Henoko in part because of a well-organized resistance by environmentalists and anti-base activists that effectively blocked an environmental assessment of the area, Japanese officials have acknowledged.
Nukaga said other realignment moves, including closing U.S. bases in southern Okinawa and moving some training from Kadena Air Base, were contingent on building the Camp Schwab heliport.
The key issues are reducing the base burden on Okinawa and maintaining a regional deterrence power, he said.
“They are the goals of the realignment,” he said. “The packaged deal means keeping the entire balance.”
Although Nukaga said the dialogue with Inamine remained open, Inamine was more blunt.
“I specifically told him the revised plan is not acceptable,” Inamine told reporters.
In Washington on Tuesday, President Bush acknowledged that realignment is a tough sell on Okinawa. He is scheduled to make a trip to Asia next week. One of his stops will be Tokyo, where on Nov. 16 he is expected to discuss the realignment plan with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
“I am aware that there’s some discontent with the agreement expressed by some of the folks on Okinawa toward the government — the Japanese government that negotiated the deal,” Bush said, according to a White House transcript. “My attitude is, and my message to the good people of Okinawa is, this is a good-faith effort.”