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Chicago Tribune .........
U.s. Agrees To Shut Down An Airfield On Okinawa|
April 13, 1996 | By Michael A. Lev, Tribune Staff Writer.
Moving to end a controversy days before President Clinton arrives on a state visit, the U.S. and Japan agreed Friday to close a U.S. military airfield on Okinawa within five to seven years.
For months the two nations had been looking for ways to end a protest movement on Okinawa by reducing the concentrated U.S. military presence on the Japanese island and returning land to Okinawans.
The decision to close Futenma Air Base was a surprise because it had been considered necessary for U.S. operations in Asia.
But the Marine airfield, in the middle of a suburb of the Okinawan city of Naha, had become a focal point for residents' anger. They have complained for years about the noise and danger of living so close to so many military installations. Their protests became much louder after three U.S. servicemen were arrested for raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl last September.
The announcement comes amid U.S.-Japanese plans to reaffirm their security ties during Clinton's summit with Japan's prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto.
At a news conference Friday night, Hashimoto and Ambassador Walter Mondale said additional measures to reduce the U.S. presence on Okinawa would be announced Monday when Defense Secretary William Perry comes to Tokyo. Clinton is scheduled to arrive Tuesday.
The U.S. and Japan will continue looking at the issue until November. The two sides already have announced some noise reduction steps that include limiting night flights.
"On Okinawa, Americans live as neighbors and we want to be good neighbors," Mondale said.
The ambassador said the helicopters and KC-130 air tankers stationed at Futenma will be reassigned to other U.S. bases in Japan over the next several years. To make room for the aircraft, Harrier jump jets stationed at another base will be returned to the U.S. The actual number of American troops in Japan -- about 47,000 -- apparently will not change.
Trying to reconfigure the American military presence to appease Okinawans has proved difficult, Mondale said, because the U.S. and Japan had agreed that continued instability in places such as China and North Korea wouldn't permit any significant reduction in operations. Futenma's closing will not impair military readiness, Mondale said Friday.
But the two sides also acknowledged that Okinawa was burdened by an unfairly large share of the military presence. About 75 percent of the American bases in Japan are on Okinawa, which makes up less than 1 percent of Japan's land mass. Some 27,000 U.S. troops are stationed there.
After 85,000 Okinawans attended a protest rally last fall, the U.S. and Japan moved to address the issue.
Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who led the protest movement and refused to sign lease extensions on some land, indicated Friday night that returning Futenma was a positive step. He called it "a great decision" with "very symbolic meaning."