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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bold alternative to base plan getting little traction -- so far

Staff writer

OSAKA -- As the central government and Okinawa continue tense negotiations over relocating Futenma Air Station to Henoko, two experts are calling for an alternate plan they say is far less controversial with locals, costs one-fourth of the Henoko relocation plan, and can be completed within four years.

This proposal envisions Futenma being relocated not to Henoko, which lies on the northern part of Okinawa about an hour and a half from Naha, but next to the Yokatsu Peninsula, which is on the eastern side of the main island.

Though the government is unlikely to embrace the plan anytime soon, it has a broad range of support from Okinawan and American business leaders and the quiet encouragement of many in the U.S. military.

Originally the idea of Norio Ota, honorary chairman of the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Yokatsu plan was drawn up after his extensive conversations with a broad range of Okinawans as well as the U.S. military, particularly the marines, in the mid-1990s.

"Unlike Henoko, the Yokatsu Peninsula area is sparsely populated and is right beside or very close to other U.S. bases, making it a far more preferable location for Futenma," Ota said. "It could be done at one-fourth of the cost of the Henoko proposal and be operational within four years."

His plan has received little support within the prefectural government, as Gov. Keiichi Inamine has repeatedly said he wants Futenma relocated outside the prefecture.

Although the U.S. military in Okinawa would not officially comment on the Yokatsu proposal, Ota said the marines offered their support during his discussions with them, mostly because it seems far more realistic.

Robert Eldridge, an American academic at Osaka University and a leading expert on the base issue, favors keeping the bases in Okinawa, and he vigorously endorses the plan.

"There are numerous merits to the Yokatsu proposal, starting with the fact that it calls for merger of the functions of the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, Camp Kinser, the U.S. Army Naha Military Port and the Air Self-Defense Base at Naha International Airport all onto one (artificial) island," he said, adding that the Yokatsu facility could also host some U.S. fighter planes from Kadena air base that exceed certain noise levels.

The plan envisions a two-runway airport located about 1.5 km from Hamahiga Island, which sits just east of the Yokatsu Peninsula. Flight paths would be over water, not land.

The Air Self-Defense base would be moved out of Naha International Airport to the new facility, so the prefecture could expand the number of domestic and international civilian flights at the airport.

"The water depth is rather shallow, and landfill can be used from the surrounding area, unlike the landfill for Henoko, which the government says it plans to import from China," Eldridge said.

The cost for building Henoko is estimated at about 330 billion yen, but Ota and Eldridge estimate building a facility at Yokatsu would cost only a quarter of that.

Eldridge speculates the main reason Yokatsu is not being actively debated at the government level is because the central government, especially the Defense Agency, has already poured so much time and money into relocating Futenma to Henoko.

The central government said last week that since the Henoko relocation plan was put forward in 1997, about 2.29 billion yen has been spent on trying to turn it into reality.

More than 1.4 billion yen has been spent on surveys and environmental assessments, while about 840 million yen has been used on discussions with Okinawan officials and voters to let the plan go forward, all to no avail.

But Ota, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate in Okinawa's gubernatorial election in November, and supporters of the Yokatsu proposal have not completely given up. They say they will continue to make efforts to get it on the bargaining table.

Ota and Eldridge say that if formal agreement on the relocation of Futenma is reached at the government level, it would still be difficult for the government to carry out construction in Henoko.

"Even if the Okinawa governor eventually gives permission to relocate Futenma to Henoko, environmental problems, as well as a determined group of locals who are opposed, make it unlikely Henoko will built anytime soon," Ota said.

That's when the plan is more likely to be formally proposed, Eldridge said.

"The Yokatsu alternative should be officially introduced after emotions on both sides over the Henoko plan have cooled down and negotiators realize that whatever the agreements, in the end, it is just not going to work," Eldridge said.

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