Futenma base relocation never far from spotlight

With the crash of a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, last month, plans to relocate the chopper’s base, the Futenma Air Station, have emerged as a major issue.

Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine has pushed for construction of a replacement base off Henoko port in the city of Nago — a plan the Japanese and U.S. governments approved in the mid-1990s. But construction has been delayed, in large part due to local opposition, and officials say about 10 more years will be needed to build the planned joint civil-military airport.

In Okinawa, calls for a reassessment of the relocation plan are mounting.

The U.S. is currently reviewing its global forces deployment situation with a view to realignment, but nothing has been decided as far as the Japan equation is concerned, military analysts said.

The CH-53D helicopter crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University on Aug. 13 after taking off from the Futenma base, injuring its three crew members and damaging a school building.

A protest rally held in Ginowan on Sept. 12 reportedly attracted about 30,000 people. City officials had only expected some 10,000.

Yurie Higa, a junior high school student, told the rally: “I am opposed to the relocation plans. The plans are like bombs being sent from one place to another.”

On Sept. 9, three days before the rally, the Naha Defense Facilities Administration Bureau began a seabed drilling study off Henoko in preparation for building the offshore airport.

Required for its construction are three years of environment-impact assessments, and 9 1/2 years to fill in the land and build the airport, triggering local concerns.

“Are they going to leave the danger of the Futenma Air Station as it is until then?” a speaker at the rally asked. The base is now in the heart of a residential area that gradually grew around it right up to its fences.

The day after the rally, Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha met Gov. Inamine in the governor’s office and asked him to review the relocation plan and look into an early return of the Futenma base to Japan.

The Nago Municipal Assembly had been largely in favor of the new airport, but according to a resolution adopted after the helicopter crash, there were equal voices for and against a reassessment of the plan.

Nago assembly member Kenyu Shimabukuro, an advocate of the base relocation, even said, “If the base does not come (to Nago) under the U.S. military reorganization plans, that would be the best possible thing.”

Last Thursday, Toshimitsu Motegi, then state minister in charge of science and technology policy and issues pertaining to Okinawa and the Russian-held islands, said: “The relocation to waters off Henoko should be carried out as quickly as possible. This is the most realistic way to achieve Futenma’s early return.”

Military sources said the United States is strongly dissatisfied with Futenma base relocation delay. The U.S. had been reluctant to incorporate the base with the Kadena base, but Lt. General Thomas C. Waskow, commander of the U.S. forces in Japan, said Aug. 26 that the idea is an option. Waskow is slated to leave Japan, after spending three years at his post.

A high-ranking official at the Defense Agency said, “It is necessary to think (about the relocation issue) from a new point of view.”