Okinawa officials taking ‘wait-and-see’ approach
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — News that 7,000 Marines on Okinawa — nearly half of the total number on the island — will move to Guam was met with caution Saturday by Okinawa officials.
Seizen Hokama, Okinawa Prefectural Assembly chairman, said he wants to see the full interim report on realignment, expected to be released Monday, Japan time.
“I cannot evaluate the change until the entire picture … becomes available,” he said. “Even if the number is reduced, the operations of the military might be actually increased if the U.S. installations are used jointly by the Self-Defense Force.”
Several unconfirmed reports in Okinawa media have stated that Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force will be given access to training areas on the Marine bases.
Deciding to move the Marines came after the United States and Japan made a major breakthrough last week in talks to move Marine air operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab and the shallow waters of Oura Wan Bay.
The Marines are expected to move to Guam over six years, according to the Pentagon.
In Washington on Friday, Yoshinori Ohno, Japan‘s defense chief, said shifting Marines to Guam should satisfy Okinawa’s demand to shrink the U.S. military’s footprint on Okinawa.
“We demanded that Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. bases be reduced in a tangible way,” Ohno told reporters. “And the two sides have recently agreed to reduce the Marines by 7,000.”
The parties also agreed to study moving all Marines to northern Okinawa, eventually closing Camp Kinser and part of Camp Foster. But Hokama said that only would move the problem from one area to another.
“The reduction must be done equally on the island,” he said. “Just moving bases from one place to another within Okinawa is not a solution.”
Marine officials on Okinawa have refrained from commenting on the ongoing negotiations.
“The Marine Corps is ready for whatever mission we may be tasked with and wherever it may take us,” was the the Marine public affairs office response to queries last week. “We remain prepared to fulfill our obligations to the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security and respond to contingency operations in the Asia-Pacific region.”
On Saturday, Marine Maj. Brad Bartelt said wherever the Marines are based they will remain “a potent, flexible force in a position to defeat insurgents and terrorists wherever they may be. We are expeditionary in nature, able to respond and deploy to any contingency at anytime and anywhere.”
Some 14,500 Marines are based in Japan, most of them on Okinawa. Deployed units from the United States training on the island can increase the number to 17,000 or more.
Units of III Marine Expeditionary Force being spread over several locations is nothing new. Currently, III MEF elements also are based in Hawaii.
The joint U.S.-Japan announcement last week of the new Futenma replacement plan drew sharp criticism from Okinawa officials. Gov. Keiichi Inamine said he wants a cap put on U.S. military use of the airport and wants the air station moved outside Okinawa if it’s not to be used jointly by civilian aircraft.
And Mayor Tateo Kishimoto, mayor of Nago, where Camp Schwab is located, said the new replacement plan has little local support.
“I have absolutely no confidence that I’ll be able to convince the citizens of Nago to go along with this,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.