Demo of 21,000 people demand closure of Futenma air base

GINOWAN, Okinawa Pref. (Kyodo) Around 21,000 people protested against the planned relocation of a U.S. military airfield within Okinawa Prefecture on Sunday ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, in a sign of growing local frustration over the new Japanese government’s vague stance in reviewing the transfer plan.

The protesters called for the immediate closure of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station located in a downtown residential area of Ginowan and urged Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to reject the transfer of the facility to a coastal zone in Nago, northern Okinawa, in his talks with Obama slated for Friday in Tokyo.

Demonstrators braved the heat to pack into an open-air theater in a seaside park in Ginowan, central Okinawa, and adopted a resolution stating, “The small island of Okinawa doesn’t need a base any more. We oppose the construction of a new facility in the Henoko (district of Nago) and (Futenma’s) relocation within Okinawa.”

They accused U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates of “intimidating” the Japanese government over the relocation issue when he pressed Japan last month to stick to a 2006 bilateral deal on the Futenma transfer and to resolve the matter before Obama’s arrival.

Under the 2006 pact, the two countries agreed to transfer the heliport functions of the Futenma facility to the Marines’ Camp Schwab in the less densely populated city of Nago by 2014.

The demonstrators also urged the Japanese government in the resolution “not to cave in to U.S. pressure and convey Okinawan people’s voices without hesitation to the United States in bilateral negotiations from ‘equal’ position.”

The rally brought together the heads of U.S. base-hosting local municipalities as well as Diet members elected from Okinawa who belong to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and its coalition partners — the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party.

The DPJ, which came to power in September after a sweeping election victory, has promoted the idea of moving the Futenma airfield out of Okinawa or even out of Japan, even though it would go against the 2006 accord signed as part of the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

But Hatoyama has recently appeared evasive on the issue, saying Tokyo will take time to consider the matter, as the issue has developed into a major headache for bilateral relations.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said in a television program earlier in the day that Hatoyama and Obama are likely to skip in-depth discussions on the Futenma relocation during their talks because they are unlikely to find a breakthrough.

Okada has complicated the issue by advocating merging the Futenma functions with the nearby U.S. Kadena Air Base. The proposal had been considered but dismissed during past negotiations between Tokyo and Washington due to operational difficulties and local protests.

Over 2,000 people staged a rally Saturday in the town of Kadena in protest against Okada’s proposal.

While Okinawa makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land mass, it accounts for around 75 percent of the land area for facilities exclusively used by U.S. forces in Japan.

Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, who took part in the rally, and other participants are scheduled to make an appeal to the defense and foreign ministries as well as the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo over the Futenma issue ahead of Obama’s arrival.

At the rally, Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha said the Futenma facility is “the most dangerous base in the world” and urged Hatoyama to tell Obama that Japan will not allow a new U.S. military facility to be constructed in Okinawa. In that way, the two countries can create “new future-oriented bilateral relations,” he said.

In August 2004, a Marine helicopter crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University in Ginowan. The campus is located adjacent to the Futenma air station.

Zenshin Takamine, chairman of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, said the burden on Okinawa residents of hosting bases “has exceeded a level acceptable” to the people. He also blasted Gates for “pressuring” Japan to abide by the 2006 accord, saying the U.S. defense secretary still regards Okinawa as a “U.S. colony.”

A majority in the assembly is opposed to the transfer of the Futenma heliport functions to Camp Schwab, following an assembly election in June last year. In July 2008, the assembly adopted a resolution objecting to the planned relocation of the Futenma base to Nago.

Takekiyo Toguchi, a resident of Nago, said the Japanese people “took a historic step forward” by realizing a change of government in the Aug. 30 House of Representatives election and that a different approach on the base issue will prove that the country has changed.

Claiming the construction of V-shaped runways in the coastal area would destroy the rich marine environment, Toguchi urged Hatoyama and Obama to “hear local voices.” “By allowing the construction of the new military facility, we will indirectly aid killings. Don’t create a ‘base for murder’ anymore,” he said.

Toguchi’s 12-year-old son also asked why the planned relocation of the Futenma base to Nago is still being discussed, although a referendum in the city conducted in 1997 clearly showed a majority of local residents opposed the plan.

“Are adults allowed to break their promises? I hope Mr. Hatoyama will not ruin our future,” he said at the gathering.

The Nago city government accepted the transfer of the Futenma base to its Henoko district despite the referendum result, in exchange for stimulus measures for the local economy provided by the central government.