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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Election of new Iwakuni mayor may speed U.S. realignment

Staff writer

IWAKUNI, Yamaguchi Pref. — Sunday's mayoral election, in which Yoshihiko Fukuda, a former Diet member, narrowly defeated former Mayor Katsusuke Ihara, is expected to ease tensions between Tokyo and Iwakuni over the planned relocation of U.S. military aircraft to a base here.

News photo
Yoshihiko Fukuda receives a bouquet from city employees Tuesday as he arrives at Iwakuni City Hall to begin his first day as mayor. KYODO PHOTO

But if the vote for Fukuda, who advocates the relocation, was one step forward for the move — which is part of a broader reorganization of U.S. forces in Japan — other issues remain, including a housing shortage in the city. And Monday's arrest of a U.S. Marine in Okinawa suspected of raping a 14-year-old girl could prove to be a new setback.

With voter turnout exceeding 76 percent, Fukuda won 47,081 votes to Ihara's 45,299. Both ran without official party backing, although Fukuda was supported by the ruling coalition parties and Ihara by the opposition parties.

An agreement between Japan and the United States signed in May 2006 on reorganizing the U.S. forces calls for transferring an aircraft carrier air wing of about 60 planes currently based at the U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture to Iwakuni by 2014, after completion of the necessary logistic and support facilities at Iwakuni.

In addition, a squadron of 12 KC-130 tankers will be transferred to Iwakuni, while eight CH-53D helicopters will be relocated from Iwakuni to Guam.

The election centered on the question of whether voters wanted a mayor who would agree to the relocation as long as Tokyo offered sufficient financial incentives or a candidate who would continue to resist relocation efforts.

Fukuda won by warning voters that Iwakuni could go bankrupt like the city of Yubari, Hokkaido, if it lost out on subsidies because of continued resistance to the relocation, and promising that if elected he would negotiate hard with Tokyo to provide as much financial aid as possible while minimizing the impact of the relocation. He also pledged to fight to make Iwakuni a joint civilian-military use airport.

Media polls during the campaign showed many younger voters and local businesses were alarmed by the city's nearly ¥100 billion debt.

There were also concerns that in 2006, the central government, angry at Ihara's opposition to the relocation plan, froze ¥3.5 billion earmarked for a new City Hall and removed Iwakuni from the list of municipalities scheduled to receive base realignment subsidies in fiscal 2007.

With Fukuda's election, the ¥3.5 billion is expected to be released and new realignment subsidies approved. In a statement released Sunday night, Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said the central government looked forward to working with Fukuda.

"The Defense Ministry hopes to meet with the new mayor as soon as possible to discuss the realignment issue," he said.

But Fukuda has a tough road ahead. The closeness of the election and the fact that many relocation issues have yet to be resolved could mean further political trouble. Three issues that will determine his political fortunes are noise levels from the relocated aircraft, housing needs for the U.S. military and safety.

"I will discuss noise levels and public safety in detail with the central government," Fukuda promised supporters following his victory.

The U.S. military and the Japanese government are attempting to solve the noise problem by building a new runway about 1 km farther offshore than the current one, which will close once the new runway goes into operation.

But the question of where the naval personnel from Atsugi will live once they arrive in Iwakuni has yet to be resolved.

"About 3,000 marines and 2,000 dependents at Iwakuni live on or off base, and there is now an on-base housing shortage. Once the transfer from Atsugi is completed, the number of service members and dependents will almost double. But where their housing facilities will be built is still being negotiated," said John Cordero, a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman at the Iwakuni base.

One additional facility the marines are hoping will be built on base is a full-scale hospital.

Before Sunday's victory, Fukuda's supporters said opposition concerns that service members will go on a crime spree if the relocation is accepted were overblown.

"There's a lot of talk in Japan in general about foreign crime and among antibase activists about crimes by U.S. Marines. But Japanese commit far more crimes than foreigners," Yoshihiko Sumi, a spokesman for Fukuda, said Sunday afternoon.

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The Japan Times

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