Mayor seeks vote on air wing’s move to Iwakuni
Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara plans to hold a local referendum on the realignment plan to move Carrier Air Wing 5 from Naval Air Station Atsugi to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, according a city spokesman.
“The mayor’s stance is that the transfer plan should be cancelled and he wants to hear voices of citizens through a referendum,” Ihara’s military affairs office spokesman, Mitsuhiro Murata, told Stars and Stripes Wednesday. “The decision is expected to be made shortly.”
The referendum only would measure opinion, Murata said Friday. The outcome would not be a legally binding direction to Japan’s government.
Ihara wants the referendum soon because his job will be abolished March 19 before his city merges with nearby towns on March 20, Murata said, adding, “The mayor believes it’s his responsibility to settle this issue before he leaves office.”
Iwakuni base officials had little to say about the referendum plans.
“It would not be appropriate for us to comment … because of ongoing discussions between our two governments,” said Maj. Stewart Upton, base spokesman.
The plan to transfer elements of Atsugi’s Carrier Air Wing 5 to Iwakuni is part of a series of recommendations in an October interim report on realigning U.S. and Japanese forces. A final plan is due in March.
Upton said the military will provide details to the community on what is to change, “whatever the decision is and as soon as it has been finalized between our two governments.”
Transferring Atsugi jets to Iwakuni is not without local support.
Tokumitsu Sasagawa, Iwakuni Chamber of Commerce president, said the hundreds of servicemembers, DOD civilians and their dependents that would come to Iwakuni would contribute to the local economy.
The transfer also is an opportunity to re-open commercial flight services at the air station, he added, saying, “The U.S. military promised us resumption of commercial aviation when a new runway is completed in three years. But it will be taken back if we do not accept the transfer plan.”
Murata said Ihara has in the past expressed support for the U.S.-Japan security alliance but opposes the transfer because of something else that has plagued Atsugi neighbors for years: aircraft noise.
“If the aircraft come, the noise will come along,” the spokesman said.
Iwakuni resident Hisao Fujimoto, who lives near the base’s main gate, said he and his neighbors also are concerned additional aircraft operations will create a greater risk of accidents.
“Some people talk about the economic boost,” he said, “but … facilities on the base are well equipped to fill the needs of residents there. So, there will be very little need for them to shop off base.”
Mayors of neighboring communities, also concerned about the noise additional aircraft would bring, are joining Ihara in urging the U.S. and Japanese governments to reconsider the transfer.
Said Hatsukaichi Mayor Saburo Yamashita: “I do support the presence of the U.S. military in Japan under the security alliance” but aircraft noise is expected “to be twice what we experience now” and would disturb sacred rites at shrines.
“Imagine these solemn ceremonies and festivals being routinely and abruptly interrupted and ruined,” he said.
Despite the controversy outside the base gate, Iwakuni personnel say their Japanese hosts are treating them the same.
“The people are always courteous,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Rachel Utnage, a hospital corpsman in Iwakuni who has lived in Japan for 12 years. “That doesn’t change unless you do something to them personally that is absolutely disrespectful.”