Okinawa's Controversial Relocation Plan
Could Ease Tensions over U.S. Military Presence
In a relocation proposal that may have significant ramifications for international relations, the governor of Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, has proposed a controversial relocation plan that would relocate part of a U.S. military base to the city to Nago City, which will host next year's "Group of Eight" summit.
The proposed relocation could mark a turning point in the heated wrangling over the U.S. military presence on Okinawa. Though Okinawa covers less than 1 percent of Japan's total land mass, it is the site of 75 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan.
Keiichi Inamine, the governor of Okinawa, has proposed that helicopter facilities currently located at a U.S. Marine base in the city of Futenma be relocated in Nago City.
Inamine's relocation proposal is part of a cooperative effort with U.S. authorities to defuse the long-standing animosities over the America military's heavily concentrated presence in Okinawa.
Many Okinawans have long been perturbed over noise pollution from U.S. jets and U.S. military accidents that have included a number of plane crashes. Those animosities dramatically accelerated with the unsavory events of 1995, when three U.S. servicemen were convicted of raping a Japanese schoolgirl. That incident in part prompted a 1996 agreement between Japan and the United States to either close or reduce the size of the 11 U.S. military facilities that span more than 20 percent of all the land in Okinawa.
A major plank in that 1996 agreement was the plan to close within five to seven years the Futenma Air Station, located in a heavily populated urban area. That 1996 agreement stipulated, however, that the helicopter facilities that were then located at the Futenma base would be relocated to a site in Okinawa.
U.S. officials in Washington seemed to heave a sigh of relief over the prospect that Inamine's proposal might defuse tensions.
James Rubin, the U.S. State Dept. spokesman, called Inamine's plan "an important step in implementing the final report of the special action committee on Okinawa. We look forward to continued progress as we work with the government of Japan on this important effort.
"The relocation will be a major step in the effort to reduce the footprint of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa," Rubin added. "We are confident that its relocation will be beneficial to both American forces and the people of Okinawa.
U.S. President Bill Clinton has also been pushing to ease tensions in Okinawa. Clinton has said that he wants all remaining issues over the bases in Okinawa resolved before he arrives in Nago in July for the G8 summit (which consists of the G-7 states -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States -- plus Russia).
Inamine's proposal would provide for a civilian airport in Nago City that would be built and maintained by both U.S. military and Japanese officials.
The airport's proposed location, which would be off Nago City's coastal district of Henoko, would seemingly hold the potential to defuse some of the controversy. The Henoko district's population totals only some 1,500 residents.
Said Inamine at a news conference in Naha, Okinawa's capital, "I judged that it is the proper candidate site. It was a painful decision."
Nago City residents, however, aren't pleased by the prospects of the relocation settling in their city.
Some Nago citizens have actively opposed the U.S. bases. At a pubic rally in August, those citizen groups were highly critical of the prospect that the Tokyo government might use the G8 summit to resolve U.S. military relocation issues. And in 1997, more than half of Nago's citizens signed a petition opposing establishing a floating heliport off the city's coast. The heliport would seriously damage the area's fishing and coral industries, charged local environmentalists and fishing cooperatives.
In addition citizens' groups have voiced concerns to Nago City officials about what they consider excessive development of the areas surrounding the Busena Resort, which will be the venue for the 2000 Group of Eight economic summit.
Before Inamine's plan can be implemented, the Okinawa governor must appeal for the mayor of Nago to accept his proposal. Another major issue that remains to be decided is whether the Japanese central government will accept a plan that would limit the U.S. military's use of the airport to only 15 years.
In the wake of Inamine's proposal, a top Japanese government spokesman said that the unpredictable security conditions in the region might make it impossible to set a time limit on the U.S. military's use of the facility.
Inamine, who became the prefecture's governor in 1998, has advocated a pragmatic approach toward scaling back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Japanese officials in Tokyo had previously proposed the heliport in Nago City. However, Inamine's predecessor, former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, staunchly opposed the relocation plan.