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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Officials in Tokyo are breathing a sigh of relief after Sunday’s mayoral election in Nago.

They’re hoping Yoshikazu Shimabukuro’s win signals that Nago residents will accept a U.S. forces realignment plan that would move Marine air operations on Okinawa to Nago.

Shimabukuro opposes a plan to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in urban Ginowan and move its helicopter operations to an airstrip to be built on Camp Schwab, in the rural district of Nago. However, he was the only candidate to say he was willing to consider a revised plan that would keep Marine air operations on Okinawa.

His two opponents wanted the Marines to pack up and leave the island altogether.

Shimabukuro and Nago business leaders say they could back relocating Marine air operations there if those air operations were moved about 2,600 feet further south than called for by a U.S.-Japanese interim realignment report released in October. They want the air operations moved further from Nago businesses and homes.

Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga said he was hopeful their stance would lead to the plan’s eventual acceptance.

“We will explain the issue cordially and we hope to have constructive discussion,” he was quoted as saying in a statement released Tuesday. “We’ll do our best to realize the relocation plan as soon as possible.”

Under the present plan, fixed aircraft operations would move to MCAS Iwakuni and Japan Self-Defense Force bases on Kyushu. A helicopter airstrip would be built on reclaimed land in Oura Bay’s shallow waters at Camp Schwab.

Closing the air station at Futenma “is one of our goals,” Nukaga said. Through a series of talks, he said, both governments have agreed to disperse some operations outside Okinawa and move the runway and heliport to Camp Schwab’s coastal area.

Possibly revising the heliport location will be discussed at senior-level bilateral talks in Hawaii this week, he told reporters in Tokyo, according to a defense agency transcript. “We will make an effort to explain the plan to local communities. We will also make an effort to obtain understanding from the newly elected Mayor Shimabukuro.

“The process is about to start,” he said. “We would like to resolve it through candid dialogue with local communities.”

In a statement released Tuesday in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said the election “shows that our plans to reorganize the U.S. forces in Japan were well received and we plan to continue making such efforts.”

Shimabukuro met with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Tuesday for the first time as Nago’s mayor-elect. Inamine, who opposes the Camp Schwab plan, supported Shimabukuro’s bid.

“There will be many difficult issues that we must face … but I hope that we can work together closely,” Inamine said, according to local news reports.

Following the meeting, Shimabukuro said he would be pleased to review an alternate Camp Schwab proposal while “thoroughly consulting with the local communities and, of course, the governor.”


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