Okinawan officials protest relief planes' use of airport
Okinawa prefectural officials have confirmed they asked the U.S. Marines to avoid using a civilian airport on remote Shimoji Island this week, even though the U.S. flights were to deliver aid to the storm-devastated Philippines.
The protest letter was symbolic; use of the airfield is granted to the U.S. military under an agreement with Japan’s government. In a news release Tuesday evening announcing that about 600 Marines in the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade are headed for the Philippines to provide disaster relief, the Marines stated, “3rd MEB aircraft, equipment and personnel from Okinawa must transit by way of Shimoji Island.”
Tadanobu Higa, Military Affairs Office director for Okinawa’s prefectural government, said deciding to protest the landings “was a difficult decision for us to make because the mission of the military aircraft was for humanitarian aid.”
The decision came only after an emergency meeting of senior officials, he said.
“The only exception for military aircraft to use Shimoji airfield should be for emergency cases, such as trouble with the aircraft itself, adverse weather or a sickness or injury of one of the crew,” he said.
A Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official called it “regrettable that the understanding of the Okinawa prefectural government could not be obtained.”
On Monday, Okinawa officials said the U.S. Consulate in Naha notified them that Marine refueling aircraft and helicopters intended to use the civilian airport on the remote island, 200 miles south of Okinawa, on Tuesday.
Okinawa officials say they were told the refueling would be for aircraft bound for Philippines storm-relief efforts and that the aircraft also would stop when returning, sometime before Christmas.
The notification stated that three CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters and two KC-130 refuelers were to land at the civilian airport Tuesday morning.
However, the notification later was rescinded because of a “procedural delay,” a ministry spokesman said.
A Marine spokesman said he could not confirm when the humanitarian assistance would be delivered from Okinawa, but a Japanese official said it could be later this week.
Okinawa’s prefectural government has opposed any expanded military use of prefectural property.
The U.S. notification that it planned to use the runway came a week after some 1,000 people protested after Japanese news media reported the U.S. and Japanese militaries planned to share the Shimoji Island airport, now used for civilian aircraft and to train Japanese commercial pilots.
Marine aircraft taking part in Philippines exercises have used the airport for years for occasional refuelings. However, local officials have objected to any more permanent arrangements.