US to shift key Okinawa base

Japan and the US agreed Wednesday to move an air base long protested by residents.

The Japanese and US governments finally hammered out an agreement Wednesday over the relocation of a US air base within Okinawa. But the decision skirts a promise by the Japanese government to reduce the American presence on the island.

The agreement to close the Futenma air base and move its functions to Camp Schwab, on the northern part of the island, is likely to be included in a report to be adopted at a US-Japan meeting in Washington this weekend of defense and foreign ministers. It also opens the way for a broader realignment of US forces in Asia planned by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the next two years.

Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan's territory but 75 percent of the land occupied by US forces in Japan. More than half of the 47,000 US troops in the country operate out of 40 bases around Okinawa that comprise almost 22 percent of the island's land mass.

The postwar US presence has been a source of tension with residents, though many are quick to acknowledge the economic benefit to the island. But the value of Okinawa is increasing with respect to the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and the US war on terrorism, says Jim Przystup of the National Defense University in Washington.

While the proximity of Futenma to residential areas poses significant dangers, he says, "we have to consider where to go after leaving Futenma" given the realities of the post-9/11 world. It is crucial for the US to have readily deployable, expeditionary forces in Okinawa, he adds.

Many installations on Okinawa, such as Futenma, are located in crowded residential areas, making noise and accidents, like a helicopter crash last year on a local university, focal points for controversy.

Part of the local opposition to US bases stems from methods used to requisition land after the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into effect in 1952. Okinawans were sometimes forced from their homes as armed trucks and bulldozers cleared the land for US airstrips and barracks.

"The postwar US rule - an administration based on military power - caused deep trauma by requisitioning residential land," says Masao Gabe, an expert on contemporary Okinawan history at Yamanashi Gakuin University near Tokyo.

Many displaced landowners left Japan for South America, while thousands remained behind to form the beginnings of the antibase movement. When Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, residents hoped that Tokyo would help them win their land back, but it took the tragic rape of a 12-year-old girl in 1995 by three US servicemen to spur action on the issue.

The massive protests against the bases after the rape incident led to a comprehensive agreement to reduce Okinawa's burden in hosting US forces. The planned relocation of Futenma is a key part of this deal. But delays caused by a perceived lack of urgency in Tokyo and a changing geopolitical situation in northeast Asia have long frustrated residents of Okinawa, which is closer to Taiwan than to Japan's mainland.

Personal security is a particularly touchy issue. "I don't mind the regular soldiers," says Asami Oshiro, a young hairdresser from Naha, in Okinawa. But, she says, one of her friends was raped by a marine, though she never reported the incident due to the social stigma involved.

While the way is now clear to move Futenma air base, construction could take up to 10 years. A 1,800-meter runway will be built partly on a low-lying cape, already used by US forces. US negotiators wanted to build it on a reef and connect it by a causeway to reduce noise pollution, but concerns over the local dugong (a small manatee-like mammal) appear to have added weight to the Japanese proposal.

Other changes slated for US forces in Japan include shifting a command center from Fort Lewis in Washington State to Camp Zama near Tokyo, and a carrier air wing from Camp Atsugi near Tokyo to Iwakuni in western Honshu. Japanese press have also reported that F-15 fighters at Kadena base in Okinawa may be moved to northern Kyushu, while some forces at Futenma will be shifted to Guam and an old kamikaze base in southern Kyushu.

The moves will result in a loss of land tenancy fees for Okinawa but a gain in peace of mind for residents, says Mr. Gabe. But mainlanders affected by the changes appear to be eyeing developments nervously. Polls taken recently in Iwakuni, where the carrier wing is to be relocated, show that 75 percent of residents oppose the move before it has even been made official.

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