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Iwakuni base expansion accelerates as local heads OK transfer of US carrier-borne jets

An aircraft-borne F/A-18 Super Hornet, the same type of aircraft planned to be moved to the Iwakuni base, is seen on Iwo Jima on May 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

The Yamaguchi Prefecture city of Iwakuni is on track to host one of the largest U.S. air stations in the Far East following an announcement from local heads that they will accept the relocation of U.S. carrier-based aircraft units from Kanagawa Prefecture to a base in the coastal city.

"After careful consideration and much thought, I have decided to accept (the relocation plan)," Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda said during a municipal assembly meeting on June 23. He was the first among the heads of local municipalities hosting the Iwakuni base to announce the approval of the plan to host U.S. carrier-based jets from the U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture. Assembly members opposed to the plan presented a no-confidence motion against Fukuda, but it was voted down. Meanwhile on June 30, Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka told a prefectural assembly plenary session that he too accepts the relocation plan.

While concerns remain strong among Iwakuni residents about noise pollution and accidents of U.S. aircraft, as well as possible crimes and incidents involving American soldiers, moves against the relocation plan have not been prominent on the local level. Behind their relatively quiet stance towards the base issue is the city's history, in which residents have been twisted around by the central government's use of a carrot-and-stick approach.

The plan to move U.S. carrier-based jets from the Atsugi base to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni surfaced in October 2005. Local residents expressed their opposition to the plan in a March 2006 referendum and in the mayoral election called in April that year following Iwakuni's merger with surrounding municipalities -- in which anti-relocation incumbent Katsusuke Ihara was elected.

The state subsequently froze a 3.5 billion yen subsidy for the construction of a new city hall, which was already under construction at the time. Then mayor Ihara resigned at the end of 2007 seeking a mandate from residents, and lost to Fukuda, who was endorsed by the pro-relocation camp, in a subsequent mayoral election.

After Fukuda assumed office, the Japanese government granted the full amount of the 3.5 billion yen subsidy for the new city hall. The state also paid the city grants for U.S. base restructuring programs, and between fiscal 2008 and 2022, a total of roughly 20.1 billion yen is expected to be injected into the Iwakuni government.

In exchange for accepting the noise pollution caused by U.S. aircraft, the municipal government has expanded city-funded programs centering on child care support measures, and pro-relocation forces have increased their strength in the municipal assembly in each election.

Taking advantage of the momentum in the host city, the national government is steadily moving forward with beefing up the Iwakuni base. In addition to the relocation plan of carrier-based aircraft units, the central government started operation of a new runway off the base. Furthermore, 15 tanker aircraft have been moved to Iwakuni from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan, and U.S. F-35B stealth fighter jets are now stationed in Iwakuni -- the first base outside the United States to host such aircraft.

In total, the Iwakuni base currently has some 60 U.S. aircraft. If 61 carrier-borne jets are relocated to Iwakuni, the base will be one of the largest U.S. air stations in the Far East, outsizing Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, which has around 100 U.S. jets. This move, dubbed a step to "turn Iwakuni into another Okinawa," further accelerates the expansion of the Iwakuni base.

For the Defense Ministry, noise reduction at the Atsugi base, which is located in a densely populated area, has been a pressing issue, and the relocation of carrier-borne aircraft was the ministry's long-cherished goal. A senior Defense Ministry official welcomed the local heads' announcement, saying, "By moving the units to Iwakuni, where the runway is located offshore and gaining local support is easier by comparison, we can expect stable operation of aircraft carriers and sustained deterrence."

In the meantime, local residents have become more concerned about the expansion of the base as a number of evacuation drills to prepare for a possible North Korea missile attack have recently been conducted.

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