Thursday, 31 December 2009 18:17
by Eric Talmadge | Associated Press
Standoff over US base closure sours US-Japan ties
GINOWAN, Japan (AP) – When the U.S. took over a Japanese airfield here in the closing days of World War II, it was surrounded by sugarcane fields and the smoldering battlegrounds of Okinawa. It is now the focus of a deepening dispute that is testing Japan's security alliance with the United States and dividing its new government in Tokyo.
A large city has grown up around the base, and helicopters and cargo planes from the U.S. Marine Corps facility buzz so low over Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, whose playground fence borders the facility, that the windows rattle and teachers stop class until the aircraft are on the ground.
"It's just too much," said the school's vice principal, Muneo Nakamura. "I understand the political role the U.S. bases in Japan play. But we have to live here."
That Marine Corps Air Station Futenma must go is not the dispute. U.S. military officials agree the base must be moved. The problem is where.
The United States says that Futenma cannot be shut down until a replacement is elsewhere on Okinawa, an idea that most Okinawans oppose.
They have the ear of a new left-leaning Japanese government that took office in September and is reassessing the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The standoff has clouded relations between Tokyo and Washington, delayed a plan to restructure America's military presence in Asia and divided Japan's political leadership. It comes as China's rising military strength and North Korea's nuclear program are changing the security landscape in Asia, underscoring the importance for the U.S. and Japan of keeping the issue from creating a major rift.
The Futenma facility, home to about 2,000 Marines and one of the Marines' largest facilities in the Pacific, is surrounded by urban sprawl.
"This base violates so many regulations and safety rules that it would be illegal to operate it in the United States," Yoichi Iha, the mayor of Ginowan, told The Associated Press. "The situation has just been left to fester for too long, and no one has been willing to accept responsibility to do anything."
He also accused the Marines of regularly ignoring agreements on when and where they can fly. The city is installing a 2 billion yen ($20 million) radar system next year to keep tabs on them. A Japanese court ruled last year the noise levels are unacceptable, and ordered the Japanese government to compensate residents. An appeal is ongoing.
Progress on the Futenma issue has generally only occurred after major incidents have sent Okinawans into the streets in protest.
That "strategic roadmap" included moving the facility farther north to a less crowded area and reducing the U.S. presence in Okinawa by transferring 8,000 Marines from Futenma and other bases to Guam.
But the decision to replace the Futenma base with another on the outskirts of Nago, another Okinawan city, sparked intense protests.
The new base would likely require bulldozing beaches near an existing Marine facility, Camp Schwab.
"We are not going to let them destroy our ocean to build another military base," said Hiroshi Aratomi, the co-leader of a group that has held a daily sit-in for the past five years. "We will be glad to see Futenma go, but not at the price of simply substituting it with another base in our backyard."