Japan and the United States agreed Thursday to begin talks on resuming civilian flights at the U.S. Marine Corps Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Foreign Ministry officials said.

A panel on facility coordination of the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee on the Status of Forces Agreement will take up the issue, according to the officials.

The U.S. air station at Iwakuni was used as a civil airport from 1952 to 1964. Local municipalities and chambers of commerce have long been lobbying for its civilian use again.

Last April, the Yamaguchi Prefectural Government submitted a report to the Defense Facilities Administration Agency demanding the Iwakuni Air Station be reopened for commercial use.

The prefecture asked the agency to negotiate with the U.S. military on reopening a 2,400-meter runway there for civilian use.

The report, compiled by the prefecture and the city of Iwakuni, estimated that 420,000 to 450,000 passengers would use flights between Iwakuni and Tokyo in 2005 if the runway were reopened.

It predicted the number of passengers would increase by about 7,000 every five years after that if eight midsize jetliners flew the route daily.

The agency had told the local governments that Japan and the U.S. would be willing to discuss the plan on condition that civilian flights do not hinder U.S. operations at the base.

The Foreign Ministry officials also said the bilateral panel will separately discuss the reorganization of U.S. military installations and areas in Kanagawa Prefecture, the officials said.

Japanese officials said in late January that the two countries have reached a basic agreement to start talks on the return of four U.S. military facilities in Yokohama.

The four facilities, which occupy 250 hectares, include a U.S. Navy communications site and the U.S. military residential zone in the Negishi district. Some lawmakers have said the facilities are little used by the American military.

A senior Foreign Ministry official earlier said that both sides are serious about starting substantial discussions on the return of those facilities and that the two governments are currently holding talks.

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