Kitazawa joins Futenma debate
New Japan defense minister gathers input on Okinawa
By DAVID ALLEN AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 27, 2009
NAHA, Okinawa — Japan’s new defense minister — a longtime opponent of having a Marine air station on Okinawa — went to the island Friday intent to hear what residents and local officials think about a plan to build an air facility on rural Camp Schwab to replace another at urban Ginowan.
Toshimi Kitazawa is conducting a three-day fact-finding visit expected to focus primarily on the plan to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and move air operations to the island’s northeast coast.
“I am here this week to hear the honest voices of the people of Okinawa,” he said.
Closing MCAS Futenma is part of the 2006 bilateral plan to realign U.S. troops in Japan. Under the agreement, once the new base is finished MCAS Futenma and two other Marine bases on Okinawa would close and major Marine commands, including 8,000 Marines and their families, would be transferred to Guam by the end of 2014.
“We will discuss the Futenma issue with U.S. government, not as a separate issue but as a whole [realignment] package together with other issues, including the Self-Defense Force refueling operations in Indian Ocean,” Kitazawa said.
On Friday, he held talks with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and members of the prefectural assembly. On Saturday, he was scheduled to tour Camp Schwab and talk with Marine officials and later meet with the mayors of municipalities that host U.S. bases.
Kitazawa noted that the recent national elections that rejected the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power for most of the post-war era, showed Okinawans wanted change. All four LDP prefectural candidates were handily defeated by four opponents of the realignment plan.
Nakaima told Kitazawa that he, too, favored moving Futenma outside the prefecture and would accept any changes the new Democratic Pary of Japan government might make to the plan.
He said he had felt bound, however, by the 2006 agreement to move the air facility to Camp Schwab, mostly because it “comes as a package that included the closure of military bases south of Kadena and would contribute to removing the danger posed at the present location.”
But by accepting the move, Nakaima said his priority was to fight to ensure people in the area surrounding Camp Schwab were protected. He had called for the two runways planned for the base to be moved farther offshore.
Kitazawa is the third minister of the new government to publicly call for moving the Futenma base functions outside Okinawa.
Katsuya Okada, the new foreign affairs minister, put his position bluntly recently in comments to reporters in Tokyo, according to press accounts.
“Don’t make the new base,” he said.
In a meeting Sept. 18 with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, he argued that “all Okinawan election district candidates want Futenma Air Station to transfer outside of Okinawa.”
In New York on Friday, Okada expanded on his opposition to the base move and told reporters he would make a study of how the Camp Schwab plan was chosen after an earlier plan to build a sea-based airport two miles off shore in the Henoko district of Nago was abandoned.
“There should have been other options,” he said, according to NHK. “Moving the operations to Nago is time-consuming and costly … we need to examine the selection process.”
Lately, other Japanese officials have said that options weighed in 1996 after the two countries decided Futenma should be closed down should be reconsidered, especially the idea of moving the Marines to Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. air base in Asia.
Meanwhile, Kyodo News reported Friday that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, in Pittsburgh for the Group of 20 financial summit, said he had not changed his stance that the base should be moved outside Okinawa.
However, he told reporters he would not immediately press the issue with the U.S. Instead, he said he would focus bilateral talks on reconstruction support for Afghanistan and whether Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force should continue to refuel U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean.