Okinawa Assembly pins hopes on Obama
NAHA, Okinawa — The Okinawa Assembly is counting on President-elect Barack Obama’s promise of change.
The change the assembly wants is the scuttling of plans to move U.S. Marine air operations on Okinawa to a new air facility to be built on Camp Schwab.
After winning control of the prefectural assembly in June, opposition parties to Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party passed a resolution against the project, which is part of broad realignment plans for U.S. troops in Japan.
“We hope that the new U.S. administration will give a full consideration to the voices of Okinawa, who do not want a replacement airport for Marine Corps Air Station on the island,” Zenshin Takamine, speaker of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, said Wednesday.
Takamine, a Social Democratic Party member from Ishigaki Island, said Seiji Maehara, the deputy head of Democratic Party Japan and part of the national opposition coalition, visited members of Obama’s foreign affairs staff in June during the presidential campaign.
“They reached an understanding that it would be difficult to realize the relocation plan,” Takamine said.
“The assembly’s stance is not to allow any new military base,” he added, saying it would be a “further burden on people on Okinawa.”
In 2006, the U.S. and Japan agreed to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma once a new air facility is built on the lower part of Camp Schwab and landfill in Oura Bay, in rural northeast Okinawa.
Once that is done, some 8,000 Marines and their families are to move to Guam as part of a major drawdown of the Marine presence on Okinawa.
That is supposed be completed in 2014. In addition, camps Kinser and Lester and part of Camp Foster are slated to be closed.
Japan’s defense and foreign affairs ministers have stated the Futenma relocation project will proceed despite the assembly’s opposition.
U.S. officials also say the realignment plan is on track.
But the assembly hopes Obama’s new administration will turn the tide against the project. They want MCAS Futenma and the other camps closed, but not on the condition a new airport be built on Camp Schwab.
“About 75 percent of the U.S. military facilities in Japan are concentrated on Okinawa, which consists of only 0.6 percent of the national land,” Takamine said.
Along with crime and accidents involving servicemembers, he said, “the Okinawan people have long suffered from aircraft noise and various environmental pollution caused by military activities.”
The assembly also objects to the new airport plan because its members say it could harm sea life, from an endangered saltwater manatee called a dugong to plants, algae and blue coral.
“I believe that the idea of reclaiming such a bountiful ocean into land to build a replacement military facility would not be internationally accepted,” Takamine said.
“Personally, I have a high expectation for the new (U.S.) administration,” he said. “I hope that many issues involving military bases on Okinawa that have been stalled in the past will find solutions under the new administration.”