HIROSHIMA – The mayor of Okimi, Hiroshima Prefecture, resigned Wednesday over his controversial offer last week to host night landing drills involving U.S. carrier planes on an uninhabited island in the town’s jurisdiction.
Hidekazu Tanimoto also retracted the offer. He unveiled the decision during a news conference in the morning.
“I should have explained to the town assembly beforehand, but I was told by the Defense Facilities Administration Agency to keep it top secret,” he said.
Tanimoto’s announcement came after the Okimi Municipal Assembly on Monday voted down his plan, which would have seen planes from the USS Kitty Hawk conduct night landing practice on Okurokami Island in the Seto Inland Sea.
According to sources close to the mayor, Tanimoto has told the agency of his decision to rescind his earlier offer, which was made without the knowledge of the townspeople and sparked strong opposition.
Tanimoto announced Jan. 30 that he was contemplating the construction of a night landing practice facility on Okurokami Island, including a 2,000-meter-long runway for U.S. carrier aircraft.
The 7.2-sq.-km island is about 4 km from Okimi.
Besides the town assembly’s unanimous rejection of the plan, Hiroshima Gov. Yuzan Fujita and local authorities in the region also opposed the proposal on environmental grounds. A particular focus of concern was the threat of noise pollution posed by jets landing and taking off at night.
Tanimoto has said he began studying the project about a year ago, hoping to use the construction funds for the military facility to revitalize the local economy.
He held talks with the agency without notifying Hiroshima Prefecture or other local authorities and presented the project to the town assembly Jan. 30.
In the wake of Tanimoto’s announcement, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in Tokyo that the plan to relocate the night-landing drills from their present sites — the Atsugi air base in Kanagawa Prefecture and Iwojima Island, 1,200 km south of Tokyo — is now on hold.
“We have to accept it as though there were no plans,” Koizumi told reporters.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said the government will have to look for a third site to host the night-landing drills, because the original plan to relocate the practice to Miyake Island has also been stalled due to the island’s volcanic activity.
“The government has to consider (a third site) as there are uncertainties about Miyake Island,” Fukuda said.
Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said that the withdrawal was a matter for the town of Okimi to decide, denying any national government interference in the latest developments.
“Whether to build a runway (for night-landing practice) was a matter for the town to decide,” Abe told a news conference. “It is their decision.”
For nearly two decades, the Defense Agency has searched for an alternative site for the U.S. military to conduct landing drills involving carrier aircraft.
The drills, which started in 1982 at the Atsugi base, have prompted densely populated areas nearby to complain of serious noise problems.
In 1991, some of the drills were diverted to a training facility on Iwojima. In 1999, the Defense Agency chief at the time said the government planned to eventually relocate the entire night landing practice routine to Iwojima and Miyake Island, 200 km south of Tokyo.
Since then, however, severe volcanic activity on Miyake has led to the evacuation of the island’s population.
The U.S. forces in Japan have voiced concern over the possible transfer of the exercises to Miyake on the grounds that the drills could be disturbed by volcanic activity. A drill facility and runway also would have had to be built on Miyake.
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