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Japan looks to speed up return of controversial U.S. base in Okinawa

Japan's Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera said Friday that Japan plans to return the United States Marine Corps'Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, several years ahead of the previous 2022 target data.

Itsunori told a news conference earlier Friday that if the work to build a replacement facility can be expedited then the scheduled returning of the base can be moved up.

Japan and the U.S. struck an initial accord in April to return the base in fiscal 2022 or later, but staunch resistance to the base's relocation within Japan's southernmost prefecture is thought to be a factor in Itsunori's announcement Friday, which was aimed at encouraging Okinawa's reluctant governor to accede to the relocation plan.

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima has repeatedly called for the suspension of the operations at the base in the crowded city of Ginowan within five years and has tirelessly campaigned the central government to move the base off the island completely and ease the base-hosting burdens of the local citizens.

But the central government here is pushing for Nakaima's consent to move the base to a coastal region of the island, as per a previous accord made with the U.S.

The relocation issue has sparked mass protests in Okinawa, but Japan and the U.S. have reaffirmed their commitment to the move, with both sides concluding that in the interests of strategic and financial concerns, the relocating of the base to the coastal area in the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture is the best way to move forward with the stalled process.

Prefectural officials in Okinawa as well as its citizens would likely see the moves towards easing their base-hosting burdens as somewhat feeble and analysts foresee a substantial local backlash, particularly as the relocation of the Futenma base will likely cause irreversible environmental damage, as a significant portion of the base's new facilities will extend into land reclaimed from the sea.

Nakaima is currently mulling the plan to reclaim land from the sea for the new facilities and sources close to the matter said he will make a final decision by the end of the year. However, experts on the matter have said that suspensions of operations at the Futenma air station within five years may not be feasible, as the timeline for the relocation process is lengthy.

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, the relocation plan stipulates the following conditions for the relocation,"..One year to conduct a survey, including boring investigation of the planned site and design for the replacement facilities; five years for construction of the facilities; 1.5 years for installation of equipment, including a radar and traffic control system to be used by the U.S. military, along with facility coordination; one year for airfield certification after conducting operational tests by U. S. forces and approval by U.S. authorities; and six months for the Japanese government's administrative procedures to provide the facilities,"the national daily said.

Based on this official timeline, the total time required to implement the plan will be about nine years.

The central government, according to Itsunori, is aiming to speed up the administrative procedures associated with the relocation, but experts maintain they will unlikely be able to find any leeway in the schedule regarding the physical construction of the new facilities in Henoko.

But while Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also told a news conference Friday that the government will "make utmost efforts to meet the requests by the Okinawa governor,"these efforts may not be enough to appease local Okinawans and their prefectural officials.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday also tried to garner more support from Nakaima and others opposed to the plan, stating that the central government would also try to reduce the number of U.S. military planes flying over Okinawa by 50 percent, by diverting their routes over Japan's mainland.

Nakaima and other officials in Okinawa, however, remain committed to comprehensively easing the base-hosting-burdens of the local people in Okinawa, which plays host to the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan.

Okinawans have consistently called on both prefectural and central governments to see their base-hosting burdens lifted, amid instances of numerous military-related accidents, such as the August 2004 incident of a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion heavy assault transport helicopter crashing into the Okinawa International University in Ginowan.

Other concerns have been connected to increasing pollution and a number of globally reported heinous crimes committed by U.S. military personnel, including the rape of an elementary schoolgirl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen in 1995.

[Source: Xinhua, Tokyo, 20Dec13]

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