Okinawa governor signs off on long-delayed Futenma relocation

About 1,500 people surround the Okinawa prefectural government office Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, urging Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to disallow a landfill request from Tokyo government to build a new Marine Corps runway off the shore of Camp Schwab. Under the Japanese laws, landfills for the airfield construction require authorization from the governor.



NAHA, Okinawa — On Friday, Okinawa’s governor approved the start of construction for a long-delayed air base to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a controversial move with broad implications for the U.S. military’s Pacific realignment.

Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima signed off on landfill work that will allow a new runway to be built in Okinawa’s Henoko district, despite strong opposition on the island of 1.4 million people. Many wanted the base, which houses Marine MV-22 Ospreys and other aviation assets, moved off the island entirely.

The U.S. and Japanese national governments have been trying to move the plan forward since 1996. When it stalled, a 2006 agreement was meant to push it along; however, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s opposition in 2009, combined with lingering local opposition, further delayed the plan.

Nakaima told reporters the landfill plan met all legal and environmental standards. The governor met Wednesday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – a supporter of the new base -- and said he left believing the current government is more committed than past administrations to easing Okinawa’s defense burden.

“Prime Minister Abe promised me that his government would work to meet our request to halt operations at Futenma air station within five years,” Nakaima said.

However, it remains uncertain whether the Henoko property would be ready that quickly to assume the operations currently carried out at Futenma.

A similar project headed by the Japanese government at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, near Hiroshima, reclaimed land for a new off-shore U.S. military runway. That project — now the largest heavy-lift runway in the region — hit numerous delays and took 13 years to complete.

A senior U.S. defense official said the timetable for the cessation of operations at Futenma will ultimately be decided by Tokyo.

“We will move to the Futenma Replacement Facility when it’s fully operational. The estimated date that we have for that in our consolidation plan released in April is 2022,” the official said on condition of anonymity during a conference call with reporters on Friday. “However, this is a facility that depends entirely on the government of Japan’s construction efforts … If the government of Japan is able to accelerate the construction and to move that date up, we’ll be quite happy to move to the facility and begin operations there.”

Nakaima also said he welcomed the decision to allow Japanese officials on to U.S. bases prior to their turnover for environmental and cultural surveys, which had been a point of contention.

“Regardless of the sentiment of Okinawan people on military presence, the tension of international situations has been increasing in recent days, and Okinawa must play a certain role,” he said. “However, Okinawa has been shouldering an unfairly heavy burden.”

Okinawa houses slightly more than 50 percent of all U.S. forces in Japan. The island is considered strategically critical because of its proximity to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the Korean peninsula.

MCAS Futenma, once located in a rural setting, is now in the center of densely populated Ginowan. In 2004, a Marine helicopter crashed in the area. Although no one on the ground was hurt, it prompted fears among locals of a potential disaster.

The U.S. praised Nakaima’s decision as a major step forward in the ongoing effort to reposition American forces in the region.

“I welcome the governor of Okinawa's decision to approve the landfill permit request to build the Futenma Replacement Facility at Camp Schwab-Henoko Bay, which is a critical part of the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Friday. “The realignment effort is absolutely critical to the United States' ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and our ability to maintain a geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force posture in the region.”

The anonymous senior U.S. defense official described the move to the Futenma Replacement Facility as “the spine of the rebalance.”

The planned base in less-populated Henoko is part of a Pacific realignment plan that will move almost 9,000 Marines, and their families, off Okinawa.

The resulting shift would greatly increase the U.S. military presence on Guam, where residents remain generally supportive of the relocation.

Although Nakaima’s decision brings that shift closer to reality, several hundred protesters gathered at Okinawa’s prefectural government building to denounce the move.

“The governor has sold the soul of Okinawa to Tokyo for money,” said Takeo Taira, 75, of Naha. “We are resolved to continue to fight to stop construction of a new base.”

Yoko Yamaguchi, of Nago, said the opposition to the move would never give up.

“I don’t know what fights will be ahead of us, but we are committed to never allow the spoiling of the precious waters of Henoko, and hand down a military base, a negative legacy, to our next generations,” she said.

Nakaima’s support for the plan represents a shift back to his original position.

Although he supported the Henoko plan when U.S. and Japanese officials crafted it in 2006, Nakaima called for the base to be moved entirely off Okinawa in 2010, when he won a close re-election race.

Nakaima said in 2010 that opposition shown by the city of Nago, which includes Henoko, made the plan unworkable. Nago will hold elections in January, and many expect that newly elected officials will be amenable to the Henoko plan.

Meanwhile, current Henoko district mayor, Munekatsu Kayo, said Nakaima’s decision could intensify protest activities in his community.

Kayo said he feared more noise and possibly violence. Others have suggested the protesters might attempt to physically block construction.

“I am gravely concerned about any situation where our residents would fall victim to such activities,” he said.

Under Japanese law, Okinawa’s prefectural government must approve land reclamation work — even by the central government — before it can proceed.

The Ministry of Defense asked Okinawa’s permission to reclaim about 395 acres of land to build runways in a V-shape off the tip of the Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab.

The five-year reclamation project at Oura Bay will require about 4.7 billion gallons of soil, which the ministry plans to buy from a contractor, according to the Okinawa Defense Bureau.

The U.S. defense official said the granting of the landfill permit will have important implications for the U.S.-Japan relationship beyond just the Okinawa realignment.

“It opens up the bandwidth in senior level both in Tokyo and Washington leaders for other issues to be discussed. You know, you’d see this issue -- we’d spend a lot of time on it at very senior levels of government,” the official said. “One of the most precious commodities in Washington is the time, attention and energy of senior policymakers, and this issue gobbled up a lot of that scarce resources. So … there will be much more bandwidth for other issues,” such as the ongoing revision of U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines and the review of roles, mission and capabilities of the two countries within the context of the alliance.

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Protesters rally Friday, December 27, 2013, following Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima's approval to build a new military air field off the shore of Camp Schwab. The sign reads "Do not sell the soul of Okinawa for money."