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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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20 Years Since Return Deal

Rikako Takada

May 17, 2016

It's been 20 years, but an agreement between Tokyo and Washington to relocate a US Marine base in Okinawa has yet to achieve its goal. People living near the facility still have to deal with noise and the risk of accidents.

The US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa is in the middle of a densely populated area. People living there have to deal with noise and the risk of accidents.

"The site of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station will be returned to Japan within 5 to 7 years," Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said in 1996, after the Japanese and US governments agreed to relocate the base.

But so far nothing has changed.

The promise to relocate the base within 5 to 7 years after the agreement was reached hasn't been realized. We spoke with local people who've spent decades living near this dangerous facility.

Futenma Daini Elementary School is right beside the facility. We spoke with those who graduated from the school about 20 years ago to find out how they see the current situation.

One of them is Shinya Miyagi, who has lived near Futenma Air Station all his life.

"It's frightening to see aircraft flying so close," he says.

Just next to the school, on the other side of the fence, are the runways of Futenma air base.

Miyagi and his classmates used to cover their ears every time a plane took off or landed, and their teacher had to stop the lesson.

When Miyagi was attending the school, the Gulf War began in 1991. He remembers heavily armed fighter jets and helicopters carrying Marines taking off from the base day and night.

"There was lots of news about the war on TV and it felt real -- the war was being fought from this place," Miyagi says.

A year after he graduated, the Japanese and US governments decided to return the land where Futenma base is located. The town was filled with excitement. People expected the base would be removed. But 20 years later, it's still there.

"I wonder what happened to that agreement. Ten years and then 20 years have passed, but the problem hasn't been resolved," Miyagi says. "To have a base next door and planes flying over the school is such an impossible situation. The base must be moved somewhere with no houses. Having planes flying overhead all the time is scary."

In 2004, many people's fears came true.

A US military helicopter based at Futenma crashed in the grounds of a nearby university during a training mission. One of Miyagi's former classmates, Shinya Zukeyama, was a student at the university at that time. He remembers the chaos at the site of the crash.

"After actually seeing a plane crash, I got scared. It was frightening to think I could have been there," Zukeyama says.

Zukeyama still lives in his hometown, with his wife. He says after having lived all his life near the base, he has gotten used to its presence.

"We can't live feeling scared all the time," Zukeyama says. "We're living with the awareness that a plane could crash anytime. I guess the base and the planes are a part of our lives. It's routine for us to cover our ears and stop talking when a jet makes noise."

The biggest reason the base hasn't been returned is the agreement between Japan and the US to build an alternative facility within Okinawa Prefecture. The Japanese government has started building a facility offshore from Henoko in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa.

Many people in Okinawa are demanding that the base be moved outside the prefecture. Okinawa and Japan's central government remain divided on this point.

NHK conducted a survey of people living in the city hosting the base in January.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they want the dangers the base poses to be eliminated as soon as possible, even if that means moving Futenma somewhere else in Okinawa.

Forty-three percent said they want it to be moved outside the prefecture, no matter what.

While there are loud calls for the base to be removed, even locals are divided over where it should go.

Noriko Hanashiro says she can understand both sides' point of view. She is another graduate of Futenma Daini Elementary School. Her son is now in 4th grade there.

The school remains dangerous, for him and his classmates.

Hanashiro says she doesn't know how the situation can be remedied.

"The base can't be moved within Okinawa and it can't be moved outside Okinawa since no one wants it," she says. "Does that make it alright for the people of Futenma to have to put up with it? Everybody else thinks it has nothing to do with them. They're going to thrust it all on Futenma, and nothing will change."


Newsroom Tokyo's chief correspondent Yoichiro Tateiwa joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Japanese and US officials agreed the base would be removed within 5 to 7 years back in 1996. So why is the base still there?

Tateiwa: To be fair to Japanese government officials, it's not that they've done nothing. In 1996, then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then-US Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale announced that the 2 countries had agreed to close Futenma and relocate it to an alternative facility within Okinawa.

The Japanese government chose Henoko as a possible site for the base. Henoko is in a remote part of northern Okinawa. Japanese government officials thought that would be the end of the issue. But what happened in Henoko was that the mayor of the town actually went to the Japanese government and he said he would accept the plan, but then he resigned. So there's always back and forth, and confusion, in that place.

And then in 2004, as we saw in the report, a US helicopter based at Futenma crashed at the campus of a university near the base. The incident was a reminder of the dangers posed by the base. In 2009, Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister and called for Futenma to be removed from Okinawa. But he later dropped that plan, and stepped down from his position.

Takeshi Onaga, who strongly criticized the plan to relocate the base within the prefecture, was elected as governor of Okinawa in 2014. Candidates opposing relocation within the prefecture have won seats in national elections. Nothing has improved since then.

Shibuya: The biggest issue is where to move the base, and that's what they've been deadlocked over for decades. Have you seen any progress on this?

Tateiwa: The central and prefectural governments have fought over the issue in court. The 2 sides dropped their legal actions after accepting court mediation proposals. The central government has halted construction at the Henoko site. So right now the Okinawa side and the Japanese government side are looking at each other and not doing anything.

Beppu: But that's making no progress. Don't you think so? Because the starting point for this issue was to eliminate the danger of the current situation. And it's widely known that, and it's crystal clear, that any side in this debate, that this situation is very dangerous.

Tateiwa: It's often been pointed out that having Futenma in a densely populated area makes it the most dangerous air field of the US bases around the world. I spoke with a journalist who covers the bases issue in Okinawa.

"The house closest to the runway is just 160 meters away. And it's a military airport. The planes carry ammunition. They fly freely and also roughly since their flights assume they are actually engaged in battle. All pilots try to push their skills to their limit, so there are risks, of course."
Tomohiro Yara / Journalist

Beppu: So there is an agreement about how danger it is. But why do the US and Japanese governments want Futenma to be within Okinawa?

Tateiwa: I looked at a US government document. It clearly states that the Marines always move with air support. And air support is the function of Futenma Air Station. Okinawa is the only place outside the US to host a Marine combat unit. The Japanese government says it's very important that the unit has air support for the security of the region.

Beppu: So what next? Are you saying that there isn't any solution to the situation then?

Tateiwa: It's very difficult. But what Governor Onaga is saying is that no new military facility will be permitted in the prefecture, so one option is that the function of Futenma be moved to an existing military base in Okinawa.

But what's important is the central and Okinawa governments deal with this issue while keeping in mind the concerns of local people. The Japanese government has to work hard to change the longtime reality that Okinawa shoulders an unfairly heavy burden when it comes to hosting US military bases, even if we talk about the security of this region.