U.S. drops bid for Iwakuni as marine option


Washington has given up on a plan to transfer 1,500 marines stationed in Okinawa to a base in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and is proposing to Japan that they remain in Okinawa, according to sources.

The new proposal was brought up during bilateral talks at the vice minister level Monday and Tuesday in Washington to review the composition of U.S. forces in Japan.

The two sides failed to reach a conclusion because Japan is against keeping the marines in Okinawa, the sources said Wednesday.

The two governments are now trying to compile an interim report on the realignment review, including details on the formation of U.S. forces to remain in Okinawa, ahead of a visit to the United States by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the sources said. The trip is being eyed for the Golden Week holidays in early May.

The United States had sounded out Japan twice about the plan, hoping to relocate the Okinawa marines to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. Japanese officials rejected it because of the difficulty of gaining local consent, prompting the U.S. side to abandon the idea and instead seek to have them remain in Okinawa.

This, however, would mean the total number of marines in Okinawa would almost certainly exceed the bilaterally agreed level of 10,000.

Japan and the United States agreed under a 2006 bilateral accord to move 8,000 of the 18,000 marines in Okinawa to Guam. The number has been reduced to 4,700 in recent negotiations, but Tokyo still prefers the remaining 3,300 to be relocated overseas.

The next round of realignment talks is expected to be held in the next week or so, the sources said.

At a regularly scheduled news conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura declined to confirm the contents of the latest bilateral meeting, only reiterating that the government doesn’t intend to ask Iwakuni to shoulder a bigger burden.

Meanwhile, officials in the Iwakuni Municipal Government said they would like to check with the central government on the issue and expressed hope that the city will be able to avoid hosting more U.S. military personnel.

Residents of Iwakuni are opposed to more marines at the base, as the 2006 agreement already includes plans for the Iwakuni airfield to accommodate U.S. carrier-borne fighter jets transferred from U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Yamaguchi prefectural and Iwakuni municipal governments have subsequently said they will freeze a land sale to the central government for U.S. military family housing near Iwakuni unless the city is delisted as a destination for the Okinawa-based marines.