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Reiji Fumoto, center, the prefecture's counselor for military affairs, and Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Naikaima respond to reporters' questions Tuesday during a break in their tour of U.S. Marine bases.
Reiji Fumoto, center, the prefecture's counselor for military affairs, and Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Naikaima respond to reporters' questions Tuesday during a break in their tour of U.S. Marine bases. (Chiyomi Sumida / S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima took the grand tour of U.S. Marine bases on the island Tuesday, saying the visits helped him envision how to develop base property earmarked for closure by 2014.

The tour was Nakaima’s first visit to the bases since he took office in December. His itinerary included Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and camps Kinser, Hansen and Schwab. According to a U.S.-Japanese agreement signed in May, once MCAS Futenma is replaced by a new air facility on Camp Schwab, the installation will be closed, along with camps Kinser and Lester and part of Camp Foster.

“This tour indeed helped me to use my imagination to draw a picture of how to redevelop the land,” Nakaima told reporters at an observation spot overlooking Kadena Air Base, which was on the way to the Marine bases in northern Okinawa but not part of the tour.

A Marine spokesman said the governor and his staff requested the visits to develop a better understanding of the role of the camps and air station. The visitors received command briefings and tours at each installation.

“They welcomed me with open arms … ,” Nakaima said.

He said Futenma, in a heavily urban area, was much quieter and housed fewer aircraft than he expected.

“But I also realized how big the facility is,” he added, saying it reminded him of the danger he believes the air operations pose to surrounding neighborhoods. In August 2004, a Marine helicopter crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University, which abuts the base. Only the helicopter crewmembers were injured, but the school and nearby homes were damaged.

“Operations at the air station must be stopped as early as possible,” Nakaima said. He has called for the base to close within three years.

Before his election, Nakaima, as Naha Chamber of Commerce chairman, already was studying what should be done with the bases when they are returned. His ideas ranged from making the island a gambling haven — with casinos possibly replacing apartment towers on Camp Kinser — to becoming the Western Pacific’s hub for information technology.

His group also was studying the possibility of developing the returned bases to expand Okinawa’s role as a retirement destination.

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