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Marine Air Station Key Issue in US-Japan Forces Realignment Plan

The United States pledges to move 8,000 of its Marines off the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. But U.S., Japanese and Okinawan officials are struggling to agree on plans to move a Marine air station out of a congested urban area to a more remote location on the island.

The sound of a Marine Corps helicopter is one heard by the people of Okinawa many times a day. The Marines keep about 70 aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, near the center of the island.

Over the years, the city of Ginowan has built up around the air base, with homes, schools and hospitals close to flight paths. Residents complain about the noise, and the hazards, caused by the base.

The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to shut down Futenma. But since then, bickering over the details has meant nothing has changed.

Lieutenant Colonel Richardo Stewart, deputy assistant chief of staff for Marine bases in Japan, says the U.S. has long been aware of the need to leave the base - to help both the civilians and the Marines.

"Futenma does need to be moved," he said. "It's best to move to an area where we can best train - that the restrictions on trainings aren't as they are down in Futenma."

Okinawa prefecture is home to about 25,000 U.S. troops and their families - nearly half of all the American forces in Japan. Okinawans have long complained that the bases are a burden - that they take up too much land, that there are conflicts between troops and civilians, and that military operations can be dangerous.

The United States and Japan are negotiating a plan to realign the U.S. forces in the country, to make them more efficient and mobile. A central part of that plan cuts the Marine presence on Okinawa by about 8,000 - more than half the total.

The plan, which Washington and Tokyo intend to conclude by the end of this month, includes moving the air station from Futenma to the edge of another base near the northern town of Nago. The landing strip would extend onto reclaimed land in the Bay of Oura.

"This entire package really will go a long ways toward reducing the burden of our bases in Okinawa," said Kevin Maher, a U.S. diplomat in Tokyo who has been involved in the negotiations over Futenma. "So we would hope that the Okinawan prefecture and the local governments and the Okinawan people themselves would be understanding of this and cooperative with the central government in implementing this package."

But cooperation has been hard to obtain. Nago city councilman Yasuhiro Miyagi says Tokyo and Washington must take his constituents for fools if they think residents will allow the air facility to be located there. The councilman warns that if the United States and Japan try to push through the plan they will be confronted with violent protests.

The mayor of Ginowan, Yoichi Iha, says that while he welcomes the plan to cut the Marine numbers, the idea of moving the air base will not get off the ground. The mayor says he agrees with those up north who predict that local residents and environmentalists will strongly oppose any new construction for the air base. He suggests that the Pentagon move all of the Marines off Okinawa.

U.S. officials say it is not feasible to abandon Okinawa under the terms of the security pact with Japan. They say some bases must stay in the prefecture to maintain peace and stability in Asia. And, they say, relocating Futenma is essential to the realignment plan, allowing the U.S. to move troops off the island, fully support the remaining Marines, maintain the regional defense posture and meet the needs of the local community.

While citizens groups vow never to allow the move to Nago, some observers predict that the Japanese government will resort to its past tactics of arm-twisting and promising to shower local communities with billions of dollars of compensation.

Ryukyu University professor Masaaki Gabe says that is not a wise long-term strategy. The problem is, he says, is that local politicians are often voted in and out of office - so a mayor who favors working with the military can the next year be replaced by one who opposes all bases.

"The money is very powerful to manipulate the localities," said Gabe. "Giving the money to the localities is, in the short time, effective. But [for] the long time - very, very bad choice because U.S. and Japan, both government, [become] dependent to local support."

If financial enticements fail to win the needed support here, officials in Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party warn they will not hesitate to push through Parliament legislation that will allow Tokyo to override attempts by Okinawa officials to halt the construction project in Oura Bay.