Japanese official on Okinawa to review U.S. base options
November 17, 2009
YOMITAN, Okinawa — Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada arrived Sunday on Okinawa to investigate the feasibility of moving Marine air operations on the island to Kadena Air Base.
During the two-day visit he will view Camp Schwab, the controversial site of a replacement airstrip designed to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, and hold talks with local and military officials.
It is Okada’s first visit to the island since taking the office in September under Japan’s new left-center government. The focus of his trip, he said, is to study alternatives to the 2006 bilateral agreement to build the new air facility on Okinawa’s rural northeast coast on the lower part of Camp Schwab and reclaimed land in Oura Bay.
During a visit to Gov. Hirakazu Nakaima’s office in Naha, Okada said he wanted to find out why Kadena Air Base is deemed unavailable for use by the Marines.
"A plan to move the operations to Kadena was once reviewed," Okada said.
"I want to know the reasons why the plan was not feasible and whether the move would be possible at all. We are now intensively reviewing the plan."
"I hope that the government will move forward in a visible manner with reducing Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. military bases," said Nakaima.
The governor supports reviewing the plan and has stated he had reluctantly supported the Camp Schwab project because he had thought it was set in stone.
Since smashing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in August’s elections, Okada and the Democratic Party of Japan have called for a re-examination of the replacement plan.
Some members of the new government have suggested Marine air operations could be moved to mainland Japan, and Okada floated the idea of moving the Marines to Kadena Air Base.
That idea has been shot down by U.S. officials ever since it was first suggested in 1996, when the two countries agreed, in the midst of massive base protests on Okinawa, to reduce the size of the bases on Okinawa by 20 percent, including closing MCAS Futenma. U.S. bases occupy about one-fifth of the island.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced in Tokyo last week that they are forming a working group to study the three-year agreement to realign U.S. troops in Japan. The key to the plan is closing MCAS Futenma. U.S. officials say that if the Marine air operations are not moved to the new base on Camp Schwab, plans to transfer 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam and closing several bases in southern Okinawa would be in jeopardy.
No timeline has been set for completing the review. Although U.S. officials have pushed for a quick decision, Hatoyama, in Singapore attending a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, said that Japan has not promised a deadline. Some political observers say the government is awaiting the results of the mayoral election in Nago in January and the governor’s election later next year.
Besides visiting the governor Sunday, Okada also held meetings with Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro and Okinawa Prefectural Assembly Speaker Zenshin Takamine. He also toured Camp Schwab and the village of Henoko, the part of the city of Nago that hosts the base. A press release from Okada’s office stated he was not expected to speak with any Marine officials.
On Monday he was scheduled to visit a memorial to the people who died during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, take in MCAS Futenma from a scenic viewing site outside the base and tour Kadena Air Base. He was expected to meet with U.S. military officials then, his office announced.
In a statement made prior to his departure from Tokyo, Okada said he was not coming to Okinawa with any preconceived perceptions, but wished to "listen well to the opinions" of the Okinawan people.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.