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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ginowan retiree rues failure to close Futenma


GINOWAN, Okinawa Pref. — Despite his best efforts, Ginowan official Shigeo Yamauchi regrets not being able to win the return of the Futenma airfield.

As a senior official in charge of base-related affairs, Yamauchi for 12 years led the city's proactive approach to matters related to the controversial U.S. Marine base.

He compiled an independent analysis on the U.S. military realignment in Japan and continued to urge the central government to achieve the early return of the Futenma site located in the congested center of Ginowan.

Yamauchi retired as chief of the Ginowan Department of Military Base Policy Affairs in March, two months before Okinawa marked the 40th anniversary of its return to Japanese administration in 1972. Okinawa was under U.S. control for 27 years following Japan's defeat in World War II.

Born near the base, Yamauchi grew up watching tanks running across farmers' fields and flare bombs fired during night military training.

His mother, Yone, 90, lost her younger sister to gunfire during the Battle of Okinawa.

Listening to her story as a child, Yamauchi began to "long strongly for an Okinawa without military bases," he said.

In 1970, with Okinawa still under U.S. control, he became a civil servant in Ginowan. After working primarily in the social welfare and policy planning departments, he was assigned to work at the section managing base-related affairs in 2000.

At that time, the governments of Japan and the United States were in talks on relocating the Futenma base, aiming to transfer its flight operations to U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab on the Henoko coast in the city of Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island.

"I thought no progress would be made if we simply followed what we were told to do by the two governments," Yamauchi said. At his own initiative, he began to collect U.S. Department of Defense documents and minutes of U.S. congressional discussions on Futenma issues and hired translation staff to analyze them.

He said his passion to close Futenma and get the land back for his community intensified in 2004, when a marine helicopter crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University near the base, injuring its crew.

In 2006, Japan and the U.S. agreed to transfer 8,000 marines stationed in Okinawa to Guam. Yamauchi looked closely at the agreement and concluded the Futenma base no longer needed to be relocated to Henoko, or anywhere in Okinawa, as the majority of marines at Futenma would be transferred abroad.

His analysis supported the call by Yoichi Iha, then mayor of Ginowan, for moving Futenma's functions outside the country.

Ginowan's hopes were heightened when the Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009.

When Yamauchi and other city officials petitioned the DPJ leaders at the time to help them achieve their goals, Yukio Hatoyama, then secretary general of the party, was the most keen to listen to Ginowan's appeal, according to Yamauchi.

Soon before becoming prime minister, Hatoyama declared that "Futenma should be moved to places outside Okinawa at the least."

Less than a year later, however, the Hatoyama-led DPJ put the base back on track for transfer to Henoko.

"I was disappointed," Yamauchi said. "The return (of Futenma land to the people of Okinawa) was almost within reach."

But Yamauchi keeps his hopes up, believing the young Ginowan city staff will continue efforts to achieve positive results.

Yamauchi wants the staff to ditch the passive administrative style of simply lodging protests over base-related accidents and crimes. "I expect them to be active in taking initiatives," he said.

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