Reports that the U.S. military may move all but 5,000 Marines off the island made the front page of Japanese papers on Okinawa on Friday.

Reports that the U.S. military may move all but 5,000 Marines off the island made the front page of Japanese papers on Okinawa on Friday. (Carlos Bongioanni / S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The news hit the island like a supertyphoon.

“Marines on Okinawa may be drastically reduced,” screamed the Japanese language newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo in a front-page headline and story.

“Majority of Marines may withdraw,” boasted the Okinawa Times.

Both papers ran stories based on a Los Angeles Times report Friday that the Pentagon is planning a “broad realignment” of U.S. troops based in Asia, moving some 15,000 Marines from Okinawa and redistributing them to smaller bases in Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. Pentagon officials told Stripes the story was speculative and “largely incorrect and inaccurate.”

Any such plans would be news to Japan’s Defense Agency, which is in the midst of $250 million in new construction projects on Okinawa Marine bases.

“And that’s a conservative ballpark figure,” said Bill Kinzley, director of Facilities Planning for Marine bases on Okinawa. The figure includes about $150 million in new housing construction on Camp Foster’s Sada Family Housing, he said.

Japan’s Defense Facilities Administration is also moving forward on plans to build a new airport in the waters off northeast Okinawa to replace the Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma.

The news reports are speculative, said Defense Agency Chief Shigeru Ishiba. There are no ongoing discussions between the two countries regarding troop reductions, he said.

“We confirmed with the U.S. through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and were told it is impossible to make decisions on such an important matter without discussion with Japan,” he said

Okinawa officials were guarded in their reactions to the news reports.

“It is not strange that such an issue is being discussed,” Gov. Keiichi Inamine told the Ryukyu Shimpo. “The U.S. government well understands the tight situation on Okinawa.”

Okinawa provides 75 percent of the land in Japan used solely for U.S. military bases, which occupy almost one-fifth of the island. The prefectural government has for years campaigned for a reduced U.S. military footprint on the island.

Troops on the street said they’d love the chance to spend a year or two in places like Australia.

“I love Okinawa, so it would be too bad if the Marines had to leave,” said Lance Cpl. William Marr, assigned to Camp Hansen. “But, I guess the more options the better. I’d be happy as hell to get orders to Australia.”

“I was surprised when I read the story this morning,” said Marine Chief Warrant Officer Don Hultz. “Australia sounds good. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that the U.S. is talking about alternatives to basing Marines.

“But, I’m a war-fighter, not a political officer,” he said. “Whatever our government wants, whatever they think is best politically, is all right with me.”

A mass move of Marines from Okinawa could potentially damage Okinawa’s already fragile economy, said Shinichi Isa, chairman of the Okinawa Garrison Forces labor union, or okichuro.

“If it is true, it is a grave matter,” he said. “It will largely affect jobs of the Japanese employees on military bases on Okinawa.”

According to the DFA’s Labor Management Office in Naha, 8,678 Okinawans work on U.S. bases.

Okinawa’s unemployment rate exceeds 8 percent, Isa said. “It would be difficult for the base employees to find new jobs.

“But it would not just affect the employees,” he said. “It will affect Okinawa’s economy as a whole. If bases are closed, landowners will lose their rent income. The loss of revenue related to the presence of military bases cannot be easily filled.”

Other Okinawans were less reserved.

“I welcome the plans if the report is true,” said Nago City Councilman Yasuhiro Miyagi. “There are too many military bases on Okinawa, the smallest island prefecture in Japan. We believe the military has been here long enough.”

“If the report is true, I will welcome the plans,” said Akira Ginoza, secretary general of the Okinawa Peace Activity Center. “It is a long-cherished desire for the Okinawa people to make Okinawa a military-free island.”

Supporters of the U.S. bases point out Okinawa, already Japan’s poorest prefecture, receives millions from Tokyo for base construction projects and public works directly related to the bases. Those millions are not included in prefectural statistics that show 5 percent of Okinawa’s annual revenues come from the bases.

Base-related revenues listed in the prefectural statistics take into account only expenditures by the troops and their families, the salaries of Japanese base employees and rent paid for land occupied by the military bases.

According to a report compiled by the Okinawa Area Field Office of U.S. Forces Japan, 77.1 percent of Okinawa’s annual revenue is from the national coffer, and 32 percent of that is from the Defense Facilities Administration.

The agency reported Friday it spent $95.7 million for construction on U.S. bases on Okinawa in fiscal 2002 and plans an additional $164 million for 2003.

On top of that, it spent $54.3 million on land return projects in 2002, part of a 1996 bilateral agreement to return approximately 20 percent of the U.S. base property on Okinawa. An additional $137.8 million is budgeted for such projects this year.

— Carlos Bongioanni contributed to the report.

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