Return of Yokota base eludes dogged Ishihara

No matter how much governor ramps up demand, U.S. not inclined to just say 'yes'

The Associated Press

A decade ago, Shintaro Ishihara made a name for himself internationally with a best-selling book he coauthored about saying “no” to America. Since becoming Tokyo governor, he has lived up to his tough-guy reputation, doggedly demanding Washington open a major U.S. air base within the metropolis to commercial airliners.

Problem is, he can’t seem to get America to say “yes.”

Ishihara’s quest for control of the sprawling Yokota Air Base, on Tokyo’s western outskirts, underscores a familiar conflict between local emotions and Japan’s long-standing national policy in support of the 50,000 U.S. service members stationed across the country.

The tensions are felt most deeply in Okinawa, where most of the forces are deployed. But, thanks largely to Ishihara, the bases have become an increasingly symbolic issue in Tokyo as well, due to the crowded capital’s desperate need for land.

As just about any visitor quickly realizes, Tokyo has a serious airport problem.

The primary international airport is well out of town, in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, 80 km from Tokyo’s city center. The old airport, Haneda, is much closer in Tokyo Bay, but is limited to an almost exclusively domestic role.

Officials say both will soon be overwhelmed.

“Along with its population of approximately 33 million, the greater Tokyo area is experiencing a rapidly increasing demand for international flights to the East Asian region, and it is clear that there will be a chronic lack of available airport facilities to cope with expected future demands,” the Tokyo Metropolitan Government argues in a policy statement on its official Web site.

Yokota Air Base, officials say, is the solution.

Daisaku Niimi, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said the metropolitan government wants the base returned to Japan “as soon as possible.”

“Ultimately, we want to retrieve the land and control of the airspace,” he said. “In the meantime, we are at least seeking joint use for military (aircraft) and commercial airlines.”

A former Imperial Japanese Army facility turned over after Japan’s defeat in 1945, Yokota is just 37 km from downtown. As headquarters for the U.S. Forces in Japan and home to nearly 4,000 U.S. service members, it has a ready-built infrastructure and a 3,350-meter runway.

Ishihara — a former transport minister with unabashedly nationalist views — wasted no time in making the return of Yokota a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign in 1999.

He hasn’t let up since.

According to a study compiled soon after Ishihara won election, nearly 5 million passengers could be expected to transit Yokota annually by 2015 if the dual-use option is realized, generating $1.3 billion in revenues for the surrounding municipalities and creating more than 8,000 jobs.

Following a good deal of bluster from Ishihara, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised the matter in a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush last year. They agreed to look into whether any changes were appropriate.

The results of their study have not been announced.

“The U.S. and Japanese governments have agreed to conduct a feasibility study of dual use of Yokota Air Base,” U.S. Forces in Japan said in a statement. “Until that study is completed, it is premature to speculate on other issues that could be related to that study.”

Last week, however, a privately sponsored report by the conservative Hudson Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, offered a less-than-optimistic assessment of the dual-use plan, saying officials should act slowly — if at all.

“The most serious obstacle to any plan for converting Yokota to a dual-use facility is a strategic one,” it said. “Should an emergency or war break out in an area close to Japan, would Yokota be able to handle the increased military load?”

Officials counter that commercial and military planes share operations at Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, and in South Korea’s Kunsan and Germany’s Frankfurt airport, which is set for complete return to civilian use next year.

Even so, the metropolitan government has had trouble getting support from the central government, which is legally responsible for negotiations with Washington and strongly behind the deployment of the U.S. forces here.

“As the Japanese government, we don’t have any intention to ask the U.S. military to return Yokota Air Base to Japan,” Foreign Ministry official Kaori Tokumoto said. “We never have, and we never will in the future.”

But she added that the joint-use idea is being mulled.

“We have been comparing notes,” she said. “We don’t have a specific time frame for its realization yet.”

Not all local residents are keen on the idea, either.

Last year, the Tokyo District Court ordered the central government to compensate hundreds of local residents for the noise caused by the jets’ landings and takeoffs at Yokota. Many fear the problem will get worse if commercial jets are allowed to use the airstrip.