Mayor's election in Okinawa is setback for U.S. air base move

Japanese officials are pressuring the U.S. to close the Futenma Air Base on Okinawa, a base that has been a key Pacific outpost for the U.S. since World War II. The Japanese complain that the sound from the helicopters torments locals who live in the newly-developed area surrounding the base.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010

TOKYO -- In a small-town election that may have a big impact on U.S. ties with Japan, voters in Nago on Okinawa chose a new mayor Sunday who opposes the relocation of a noisy U.S. military air base to his town.

Susumu Inamine, who said during his campaign that he did not want the air station constructed in Nago, defeated the incumbent, Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, who has long supported hosting the base as a way of increasing jobs and investment.

"I was campaigning in the election with a pledge not to have a new base built," Inamine told supporters Sunday night.

The United States and Japan agreed four years ago to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, now located in a dense urban area in the center of Okinawa, to Nago, a town of 60,000 in the thinly populated northern part of the tropical island. It was to have been built on landfill along a pristine coast on the edge of the town.

But to the exasperation of the Obama administration, that deal was put on hold last fall after the election of a new government led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who says Japan has been too passive in its dealings with the United States. Hatoyama has suggested that the base be moved off Okinawa or out of Japan altogether -- and has also said that the outcome of the mayoral vote in Nago would be a factor in his government's final decision, which he has promised to make by May.

Inamine's anti-base campaign attracted support from environmentalists and from local members of Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan and its coalition partners, as well as from the Japanese Communist Party.

Nago's mayor avoided mention of the airbase in his campaign, saying its relocation was not a matter that could or should be decided by him or residents of his city.

That view is shared by U.S. Marine Corps commanders, who view the Futenma air station as a linchpin in the continuous training and on-call mobility of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, which is based on Okinawa and is the only such U.S. force in the Far East.

"National security policy cannot be made in towns and villages," Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, commander of Marine forces in the Pacific, said in an interview last week.

Relocating the Marine air station to Nago is a key part of a $26 billion deal between Japan and the United States to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and turn over valuable tracts of land to people on the island. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last fall that the deal would probably collapse if the air station does not move to Nago.

Several U.S. officials said last week they believe that senior leaders in the Hatoyama government have begun to realize that there is no workable alternative to relocating the air station as previously agreed. They also said that such an important decision should be made in Tokyo and not in a local election.

Construction of the air station in Nago would require a massive landfill in a picturesque stretch of waters now used by fishermen and snorkelers. It is opposed by environmentalists who have filed a lawsuit saying it would destroy habitat of the rare dugong, a manatee-like sea mammal. A Japanese government environmental assessment has said that dugongs have not been seen in the proposed construction area for many years.

For many Okinawans, the Futenma air station has become a symbol of the noise, pollution and risk of accidents that they associate with the large U.S. military presence on the island.

Surrounded by 92,000 people in the city of Ginowan, Futenma torments its neighbors with the comings and going of combat helicopters and transport aircraft.

In 2004, a helicopter based at the airfield crashed into the administration building of a nearby college. There were no deaths, but the incident angered local residents and led to the 2006 agreement to move the air base to Nago.

The vote in Nago does not necessarily kill the relocation of the air station. The final decision is up to the governor of Okinawa, who has shown qualified support for the base relocation plan, and the central government in Tokyo.

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