U.S. military brass in Japan reportedly contacted about 20 real estate agencies in Kanagawa Prefecture between late last year and early this year to ask them if they could build about 500 housing units near Camp Zama.

The camp, which stretches across the cities of Sagamihara and Zama, is where the U.S. Defense Department plans to transplant the U.S. Army’s First Corps headquarters now at Fort Lewis, Wash. It is viewed as the highlight of Japan’s role in the U.S. global military realignment plan.

Real estate agencies declined comment, but speculation is rife among area residents that the army’s expansion plan is inevitable, despite strong local opposition.

Shigeru Kobayashi, head of the Sagamihara Municipal Government’s foreign affairs division, said the city is afraid the transplant will lead to a military buildup at Camp Zama and delay the return of the site to Japan.

“The current global military realignment is said to take place every 40 to 50 years,” Kobayashi said. “Thus we fear the U.S. military facilities in Camp Zama will not be returned for the next 40 to 50 years.”

Earlier this month, the city submitted more than 210,000 signatures — just over a third of its population — to the central government, urging it to reject the First Corps relocation to Camp Zama. Many of Zama’s 128,000 residents are also opposed.

In Sagamihara, residents do not rely heavily on Camp Zama for jobs. In the absence of a significant economic incentive for hosting the U.S. installation, which is now surrounded by neighborhoods, locals have demanded the site be returned.

Unlike other prefectures and cities hosting U.S. bases, only about 900 Sagamihara residents are employed at Camp Zama. Similarly, only 428 of Zama’s residents are employed by the U.S. military. In addition, the 1.1 billion yen government subsidy Sagamihara receives for hosting the facility accounted for a scant 0.7 percent of its revenue in fiscal 2004.

“We don’t get any benefit in having the U.S. base and facilities here,” Kobayashi said.

The installation, which occupies what is now the heart of the city, is also an obstacle to planning, Kobayashi said. The Sagami General Depot, a separate U.S. military facility north of Sagamihara Station, is hindering the city’s plan to link the Odakyu Tama Line to the station, he said.

Then there’s the noise. In the past two years, the city has received numerous calls from residents complaining about the noise of U.S. helicopters training day and night.

Tokyo and Washington are drafting an interim report on the U.S. military realignment plan, but critics argue that there has been little public debate on how relocating the First Corps to Japan might affect the nation’s defense policy and the security alliance with the U.S.

Defense experts point out that the transplant signifies Washington’s desire to see Japan become a key frontline base to counter the “arc of instability” that runs through the Middle East and Asia. This will underline Japan’s role as the arm of the U.S. military, said Hiromichi Umebayashi, president of the nonprofit organization Peace Depot.

“It will send out a negative message for Japan’s security,” Umebayashi said. “The message is that Japan will actively take part in the U.S. global military strategy.”

But the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty only permits the U.S. military to use facilities in Japan for the purpose of contributing to the peace and security of the Far East, not other regions, and Japanese officials say the government doesn’t intend to revise the bilateral security treaty.

Japan and the U.S. are reportedly searching for ways to integrate the First Corps and Camp Zama without revising the treaty, including limiting its activities to the Far East, which encompasses the region north of the Philippines.

But the headquarters transfer would also raise tensions between Japan and China, which are already at odds over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine and other bones of contention, according to Takashi Kawakami, professor of security issues at Takushoku University.

Since the U.S. Army does not have any headquarters in Japan, Kawakami said the transfer would allow it to easily coordinate with the Ground Self-Defense Force.

“It will be a threat to North Korea as well as China,” Kawakami said.

Tokyo and Washington angered Beijing in February after the defense and foreign ministers of the two allies made a joint statement referring to tensions across the Taiwan Strait as a mutual security concern.

Kawakami pointed out that Japan effectively sided with the U.S. in characterizing China as a potential enemy before the government conducted thorough debate on the issue.

“It’s a security dilemma,” Kawakami said.

Umebayashi of Peace Depot said Japan needs to map out its own security strategy and put more weight on its relationship with its regional neighbors, including China.

“Japan’s history and relationship with China and other Asian nations are different from those of the U.S.,” he said. “So Japan’s strategy on those nations should differ from that of the U.S.”

Umebayashi said the government should decide whether to accept Washington’s proposal based on that blueprint.

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