U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel visits Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, on Jan. 19, 2024.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel visits Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, on Jan. 19, 2024. (Jennessa Davey/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa prefecture has objected to the U.S. ambassador’s upcoming visit to two islands east of Taiwan because he is planning to travel on U.S. military aircraft, according to official and media accounts.

The U.S. military asked the prefecture for clearance to use the Ishigaki and Yonaguni airports on May 17 for “transportation of personnel,” a spokeswoman for the prefecture’s Military Base Affairs Division told Stars and Stripes by phone Wednesday.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel is expected to visit Japan Ground-Self Defense Force bases and meet city officials on both islands, according to a May 1 report by public broadcaster NHK that cited unnamed government officials.

The islands’ proximity to Taiwan and the Senkaku islets, a Japanese possession, puts them center stage as regional tensions simmer between China and the United States.

A Camp Ishigaki spokesman confirmed by phone Wednesday that the base had been notified of the ambassador’s visit, but he declined to provide further details.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo, U.S. Forces Japan and the Okinawa Defense Bureau did not immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment Thursday.

The prefecture’s Airport Division approved the Yonaguni stop but rejected the one at Ishigaki because “it is not possible to park the aircraft during the requested time,” a division spokesman said by phone Wednesday.

The base affairs spokeswoman said the prefecture discourages U.S. military aircraft from visiting the islands.

“Civilian airports were built for civilian aircraft; our policy is that the U.S. military should refrain from using the airport except in case of emergency,” the spokeswoman said. “We are requesting it to assure a safe and smooth operation of those aircraft.”

The prefecture appealed Wednesday to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Okinawa Liaison Office and Okinawa Defense Bureau to ask the U.S. military to refrain from using both airports.

“This request does not have a legal binding power, and the U.S. military can use the airport if there is an open spot during the requested time,” the base affairs spokeswoman said.

It is customary in Japan for some government officials to speak to reporters on condition of anonymity.

In March, the prefecture similarly asked the U.S. Navy to cancel a three-day port call at Ishigaki, a popular tourist destination, by the USS Rafael Peralta.

The guided-missile destroyer made its rest stop, but local dockworkers went on strike in protest during its stay.

Yonaguni and Ishigaki are approximately 70 miles and 160 miles east of Taiwan, respectively.

Camp Ishigaki opened with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles in March 2023. Japan plans to install an upgraded version of its Type-12 surface-to-ship missile there and on two other islands by 2026 to counter perceived threats from China and North Korea.

The Ground Self-Defense Force established a surveillance station at Camp Yonaguni and held a training exercise with U.S. Marines on the island in February, The Washington Post reported in March.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada in April 2023 ordered a Patriot missile-defense system deployed there following reports that North Korea planned a satellite launch.

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Keishi Koja is an Okinawa-based reporter/translator who joined Stars and Stripes in August 2022. He studied International Communication at the University of Okinawa and previously worked in education.

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