Japan to study closing U.S. base in Okinawa in 5 years

TOKYO, Feb. 14 (PNA/Xinhua) — The Japanese government will convene a committee with local prefectural officials in Okinawa to explore closing the controversial U.S. Marines’ Futenma air base in Ginowan City in Japan’s southernmost prefecture, a top government spokesman said Friday.

According to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the committee will initially comprise himself, alongside Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Ichita Yamamoto, the minister in charge of Okinawa.

The central government team is expected to hold talks Monday with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima on ways Okinawa can be reduced of its U.S. base hosting burden, including closing the Futenma air base within five years.

Nakaima, who had previously promised the people of Okinawa that the Futenma base would be moved off the island entirely, changed his mind under pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and gave the green light to a landfill project to be started in a coastal region for the base’s relocation on the island.

Under a pact between Japan and the U.S in 1996 which was recently supported by Nakaima, the Futenma base will be relocated from the densely populated Ginowan to the coastal area of Henoko district in Nago, also on Okinawa island.

The relocation project outlines that 60 hectares of coastal land would need to be reclaimed during the five-year construction plan, much to the annoyance and anger of local prefectural officials, as well as the islanders, who are concerned that the construction work will irrevocably damage the local fishing industry as well as the natural environment.

Ties have subsequently been strained between the U.S. and Japan over the stalled move and despite Nakaima’s U-turn to favor the plan, local opposition remains steadfast.

Susumu Inamine, Nago’s newly reelected mayor saying he will use his power to block the bilateral plan to relocate the base, has caused a fresh headache for Tokyo and Washington over the hugely delayed plan, which has made little headway since the pact was made and has contributed to strained ties between the U.S. and Japan on the issue who desperately need consent from the islanders for the plan to move ahead.

But Japan’s top government spokesperson said Friday all moves going forward would take into account the feelings of the local people.

Suga had, however, previously intimated that Inamine blackballing the relocation plan may not impact the original relocation plan, but history has taught both Tokyo and Washington that local Okinawans will vociferously take to the streets in protest if they feel their rights are being denied, or if their local officials don’t make good on their promises.

To this end Suga told a news conference, “The government will do its utmost to tackle the issue in the best possible way, while taking into serious consideration the feelings of the local people of Okinawa.”

The new committee will also traverse issues of transferring issues of moving some of the Marines’ MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft off the island and measures to boost the local economy as U.S. held land is returned to Japan.

Okinawa currently shoulders the burden of hosting 75 percent of Japan’s U.S. bases and around half of the 50,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Okinawa, although the tiny island only accounts for just one percent of Japan’s total area.

Local citizens and officials have consistently called on both prefectural and central governments to see their base-hosting burdens lifted, amid instances of numerous military-related accidents, increasing pollution and a number of globally reported crimes committed by U.S. military personnel.

Washington and Tokyo have agreed to transfer around 8,000 marines and their families to Guam, Hawaii and Australia, in a bid to further show the local islanders that both sides are making concerted effort to reduce their decades-long base hosting burdens, but calls remain adamant from locals that the Futenma base be moved off the island entirely, as per previous central and local governmental promises that were backtracked on. (PNA/Xinhua)