By Hisashi Yukimoto
A new interfaith group in Japan has joined local opposition to the U.S. military presence on the southern island of Okinawa as the two countries announced on 21 June that they have postponed the 2014 deadline for relocating a U.S. Marine base there, due to the plan’s unpopularity.
“The lives of Okinawan people are still threatened [by the bases],” said the Tokyo-based group composed primarily of Buddhists and Christians. “We as religionists have the same resolution in caring for life and protecting peace,” the group said in a statement adopted at its launch on 17 June. “We will address the problem of U.S. military bases in Okinawa,” it said.
In Washington, D.C. on 21 June, a joint statement by the two countries said plans for the relocation would not meet the 2014 date, but would be carried out “at the earliest possible date” after 2014. Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa are in the U.S. capital for talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Under a 1996 agreement between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station, currently based near the densely-populated area of Futenma on the main Okinawa island, was to be relocated to an offshore coral reef area near the village of Henoko.
In 2006, the relocation plan was to be completed by 2014 as part of a U.S. military realignment, but the plan has been strongly opposed since 1996 by local residents and supporters nationwide, including Okinawan Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and many Okinawan residents. The local government has said that the bases hinder regional development and that there are concerns with crime, aircraft operations, noise pollution and environmental pollution.
The interfaith group is led by Tainen Miyagi, a Buddhist Abbot of Seigoin temple in Kyoto; the Rev. Isamu Koshiishi, moderator of the National Christian Council in Japan and Bishop Daiji Tani, president of the Japan Catholic Council for Justice and Peace. The group’s name in Japanese is: “Religionists Group for Okinawa Without Bases – To Seek Removal of Futenma Base And Cancellation of the Construction of New Base in Henoko.”
The site of a significant World War II battle, Okinawa hosts about half of the nearly 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan. After the war, the Okinawa bases were used to dispatch U.S. troops to conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.