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20 years on, Futenma Air Station issue still divisive in Okinawa

A Marine waits to guide MV-22 Ospreys with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, during their takeoff from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa.

JESSICA COLLINS/U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

By THE JAPAN NEWS Published: December 22, 2017

Sunday marks 20 years since then Nago Mayor Tetsuya Higa announced he would accept a plan to shift the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station to his city from its current location in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. Although the Japanese and U.S. governments have made steady efforts to realize the relocation of this base over the past two decades, opposition to the plan has intensified in Okinawa Prefecture in recent years.

On Dec. 24, 1997, Higa met then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto for talks and announced he would accept shifting the base to Nago, and he later resigned as mayor. In a city referendum held just three days earlier, 52.86 percent of Nago residents opposed a proposal to construct a heliport off the Nago coast, topping the 45.33 percent of residents who supported the proposal. Higa's painful political decision to accept the base gave the planned relocation a green light.

However, the base transfer has not been a smooth process. Then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who headed the Democratic Party of Japan-led government that came to power in 2009, sought to move the Futenma base out of Okinawa Prefecture. Although Hatoyama ultimately abandoned this plan, bitter feelings remain in the prefecture.

In April 2013, after the Liberal Democratic Party had regained power, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on a plan to return the land on which the Futenma base stands to Japan in fiscal 2022 or later. The base is near crowded residential areas, and on Dec. 13 this year a window from a U.S. military helicopter fell on a nearby elementary school.

"We're working to remove this source of danger as quickly as possible," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

As part of this effort, the Japanese government is stepping up construction of a seawall in the Henoko district of Nago to enable the return of the Futenma base site as soon as possible.

As this process unfolds, the pros and cons of the relocation will once again be a point of contention in the Nago mayoral election scheduled for Feb. 4.

After Higa resigned, the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Nago mayoral elections were all won by candidates who favored accepting the air base relocation plan. But in 2010, Susumu Inamine, who campaigned on a promise to oppose the base, was elected mayor for the first time. Inamine was reelected in 2014 and will run in next year's election as he seeks a third term. The mayoral race is shaping up as a two-horse race between Inamine and Taketoyo Toguchi, a former municipal assembly member backed by the Liberal Democratic Party's Okinawa Prefecture chapter, which supports the base transfer.

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