Tokyo and Washington agreed Friday to move about 9,000 U.S. Marines out of Okinawa as part of the ongoing realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan, leaving about 10,000 marines in the prefecture.
Of the departing contingent, 4,000 will be stationed on Guam and the rest mainly in Hawaii and other areas, a Defense Ministry official said, elaborating on the joint statement.
As for the contentious plan to shift the Futenma air base in Ginowan farther north on Okinawa Island, the allies altered their description of the plan from “the only viable solution,” as stated in earlier papers, to “the only viable solution that has been identified to date.”
This has raised speculation that the two countries might explore other options or other destinations than the less-congested Henoko district. Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka flatly denied that Friday. He said the ministry does not have “any places in mind” other than Henoko.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said the statement “has not ruled out considering other locations,” but stressed that the two have already “discussed every possible solution” in regards to Henoko.
Earlier, Tokyo and Washington agreed that the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, the transfer of the thousands of marines, and the return of bases and facilities to Okinawa should all be grouped in one package.
But with the Futenma base’s relocation plan frozen by stiff local opposition, the two countries formally agreed in Friday’s statement to proceed with the other two items first.
“The security situation is changing and will not stop doing so,” Genba told reporters Friday.
“I think that we’ve reached a point where Japan and the U.S. need to properly share their responsibilities and realize them with speed. Otherwise we would not be able to adapt to the security changes,” he said.
The two countries also agreed that Tokyo will pay up to $2.8 billion to shoulder the cost extracting the 9,000 marines and will consider using that budget to cover maintenance costs for facilities outside Japan where the two plan to conduct joint military exercises, including on Tinian and Pagan islands in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Meanwhile, the U.S. estimates that the cost of extracting the marines will exceed $8.6 billion, but Japan is not obliged to shoulder any more than $2.8 billion.
According to the statement, five U.S. bases and facilities in southern Okinawa will be returned in three stages. The first to be returned will include the West Futenma Housing area of Camp Foster (known in Japanese as Zukeran) and parts of Camp Kinser (Makiminato).
The joint statement is an interim report on how the review of the 2006 bilateral accord on realigning U.S. forces in Japan is progressing. The statement is aimed at strengthening bilateral defense cooperation while reducing the size of the forces in Okinawa, where antimilitary sentiment has remained strong.
The joint statement was supposed to be released Wednesday, but the U.S. asked to postpone it “because they needed more time to coordinate domestically,” a Foreign Ministry official said.
News conferences by Genba and Tanaka were hastily canceled after U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, John McCain and Jim Webb expressed concern about the joint statement Tuesday in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Earlier, the three senators called the two countries to drop the Henoko relocation plan and instead consider integrating the Futenma base with Kadena Air Base.