Okinawa pushes Koizumi to cut U.S. troop presence
NAHA, Okinawa — Okinawa officials are urging Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to follow through on progress made in a 35-minute talk with President Bush last week regarding reducing U.S. troop strength on the island.
“We urge the government to start a concrete dialogue with the U.S. government to make the reductions happen — which was agreed to by the leaders of both countries,” Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said Wednesday during a news conference in Naha after Koizumi met with Bush.
Okinawa houses more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, and U.S. bases cover about one-fifth of the island prefecture.
After his meeting with Bush on Wednesday, Koizumi said reducing the burden of Okinawa in hosting U.S. military bases is his Cabinet’s top priority.
“The U.S. forces in Japan provide a very valuable deterrent capability, as well as playing a key role in the defense of Japan,” Koizumi said, according to a transcript of the press conference provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “At the same time, the residents in areas where U.S. bases are located have been expressing the strong desire for their burden to be reduced.”
According to the transcript, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters after the meeting that “the U.S. and Japan have been exchanging ideas on how to modernize our alliance and our presence.
“The prime minister agreed that we need to accelerate these talks … on how the U.S. military presence in Japan should be shaped as part of our global posture review and how the U.S.-Japan alliance should be modernized.
“The two leaders agreed that this has to be done, and can and will be done in a way that both strengthens deterrence and the effectiveness of the U.S. military presence, while at the same time addressing the concerns of the communities in Japan and reducing the burden,” the official said.
The official said that the leaders did not agree on any concrete numbers of troops to be moved from Okinawa.
The Japanese press has reported for months that some Marines in an artillery unit may be moved to mainland Japan, where they now conduct live-fire exercises.
“The two governments are going to be exchanging ideas for ways that we can try to reduce the burden,” the official said. “That may be providing some consolidation of bases, it could be a change of numbers, but that’s not yet determined.”
Koizumi said Japan first must come to an internal agreement on how best to meet the challenge.
“Many of the U.S. bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa,” Koizumi said. “A major challenge for us is the reduction of the burden placed on the Okinawan people by the many bases and facilities located there.”
He said Japan is proceeding with plans to construct a facility for Marine air operations on reclaimed land and a reef off Henoko, in rural northeastern Okinawa. The base would replace Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, which is in urban Ginowan. Pressure from Okinawa officials to close Futenma intensified following the Aug. 13 crash of a Marine helicopter on a university campus adjacent to the base.
“As we consider alternative locations for the functions of the bases now concentrated on Okinawa, we confront the fact that candidate municipalities for replacement facilities tend to oppose moves to bring the facilities to their locales,” Koizumi said. “We must consider as a nation how to deal with this issue.”
He said it was a question “for the Japanese themselves to consider separately from the context of Japan-U.S. relations.”
Koizumi stopped short of mentioning which communities, besides Okinawa, might be affected.
“We are not yet at the stage where we can consider specific municipalities to host U.S. bases.”
Opponents of the bases on Okinawa reacted warily to the reports.
“I had no great expectations for their summit talk,” Yuji Kinjo, 69, said of the meeting between Bush and Koizumi. Kinjo is one of the Henoko residents who began a sit-in at the village’s port on April 19 protesting the planned construction of the new Marine air station.
“We no longer trust anything the government says,” Kinjo said in a telephone interview. “The government is using its power to pursue their plan here at Henoko.”
He said opposition to the Henoko plan is growing.
“After the helicopter crashed in Ginowan, our protest activities began to draw much attention from throughout Japan,” he said. “We will continue to fight and do whatever it takes to stop the construction.”
Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, an opponent of the U.S. bases on Okinawa, welcomed last week’s discussion between the two leaders.
“Raising the issue of reducing the burden placed on Okinawa is what we have long been asking for,” he said Friday. “I believe it marked the first solid step in solving this issue.”
Iha said he hoped Marines now deployed from Okinawa to Iraq would not return to the island, and that other units could be dispersed to other bases in Japan, making the Henoko project unnecessary.
“If the Marine Corps forces are dispersed, building a new military airport would be irrelevant,” he said. “But as long as the government sticks with the Henoko project, reducing Okinawa’s burden will not be achieved,” he said.
The Marine Corps on Okinawa had no comment on the discussions between Bush and Koizumi.
“This is obviously an issue that is between the governments of Japan and the United States and it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” said 2nd Lt. Antony Andrious, spokesman for the Marine Consolidated Public Affairs Office on Okinawa.