NAHA, Okinawa — Next Sunday’s mayoral election in Nago could be the key to whether a bilateral plan for realigning U.S. troops in Japan can succeed.

“Nago is the most critical local community among all the local communities that are to be affected by the repositioning of U.S. forces in Japan,” Yuji Miyamoto, ambassador in Charge of Okinawan Affairs, said during his monthly regular press conference Monday.

“It is obvious that Tokyo has strong interest in the result of next Sunday’s election,” he said.

Two of the candidates are dead-set against the proposed heliport construction at Camp Schwab to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The third candidate is against the plan, but is willing to discuss Okinawa-based alternatives.

“Naturally, the result will be the will of the people of Nago City,” Miyamoto said.

Whatever happens Sunday, Tokyo will proceed with negotiating with the U.S. on a final plan due in March.

“All I can say now is that Tokyo would proceed with the realignment, while giving consideration to the will of the people of the local community,” Miyamoto said.

On Oct. 29 the U.S. and Japan agreed to an interim report on the realignment of troops in Japan which calls for replacing MCAS Futenma with a facility to be built on Camp Schwab and reclaimed land in the waters of Oura Bay. It also calls for the possible relocation of some 7,000 Marines to Guam and other parts of Japan and the closing of some other Marine bases in southern Okinawa.

Most Okinawa prefectural and municipal officials oppose the Camp Schwab plan, but U.S. officials have said the transfer of the Marines is contingent on the airstrip construction.

It’s proving to be a hard sell.

Camp Schwab is in rural Nago, separated from the urban area by a mountain. The Camp Schwab airport plan replaced a plan to build a much larger airport about two miles offshore to be jointly used by civilian aircraft.

That joint-use airport plan drew the support of local officials, who saw it as a boost to the economic development of northern Okinawa. The new plan doesn’t include such joint use.

Of the three candidates, Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, 59, backed by the LDP and outgoing mayor Tateo Kishimoto, insists the Schwab plan should be revised to include input from the local business community. He supports construction of a 1.12-mile runway about 2,600 feet south of where the current Camp Schwab plan places it.

It would involve more land reclamation in Oura Bay, but would avoid having a flight path over local homes and businesses, proponents say.

Yoshitami Oshiro, 65, backed by anti-base groups, is against any relocation plan and insists Futenma’s replacement be found outside Okinawa. Munehiro Gakiya, 59, backed by the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Okinawa Social Mass Party, strongly opposes the Camp Schwab plan, although he originally supported the offshore facility.

Miyamoto said Tokyo and Washington have accelerated the realignment talks.

“Vice ministerial-level talks have been held at least twice a month,” he said. “The latest such talk was held in Washington last week and we will have another one by the end of this month.

“Nevertheless, it requires a great time because the amount of work is enormous,” he added.

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