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Fallen window from US military chopper likely to intensify conflict over base relocation

The Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, bottom right, is pictured with U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft on Dec. 13, 2017. (Mainichi)

The fall of a window from a U.S. military helicopter onto the playground of an elementary school in Okinawa Prefecture will likely intensify the conflict over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.

Okinawa residents are furious about U.S. forces in the prefecture, which have repeatedly been involved in accidents in the region, and the Japanese government, which has failed to work out preventive measures.

Calls for the closure of Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, which is described as the "world's most dangerous base," are only mounting in Okinawa Prefecture. On the other hand, some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) point to the need to relocate the base to the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, at an early date to eliminate the danger posed by the base.

"I'm left speechless as U.S. military accidents are repeated time and again," Gov. Takeshi Onaga angrily told reporters after inspecting the Futenma No. 2 Elementary School in Ginowan, where the accident occurred.

Vice Gov. Moritake Tomikawa strongly urged Koichiro Nakajima, head of the Japanese Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau who visited the prefectural government headquarters in Naha to express an apology over the incident, to make sure that operations at Funtenma base end within five years "on the responsibility of the national government."

There has been a spate of accidents involving aircraft from Futenma base, including the crash-landing of an Osprey aircraft just off Nago in December 2016 and one where a CH-53E helicopter burst into flames after making an emergency landing on a privately owned land lot in the village of Higashi.

Regardless of whether the air base will be relocated to Henoko or not, the prefectural government has demanded that operations at Air Station Futenma be terminated by February 2019, as promised by the central government when Hirokazu Nakaima, Onaga's predecessor, gave the green light for landfill work off Henoko.

However, the central government has not complied with the demand on the grounds that the closure of the base is premised on cooperation from the prefectural government in the based relocation to Henoko.

The latest incident has sparked renewed calls within the LDP for relocation of Futenma base to Henoko to eliminate the danger posed by the facility to the local communities.

"It's necessary to eliminate the danger as early as possible. To that end, the relocation to Henoko should be promoted," said Okinawa Prefectural Assembly member Kyoki Nakagawa, who serves as secretary-general of the LDP's prefectural chapter.

Moriyuki Teruya, head of the chapter, criticized Gov. Onaga for only opposing the base relocation to Henoko while failing to address the danger posed by the base.

Teruya and Nakagawa said they still cannot predict whether the latest incident will affect the outcome of the upcoming Nago mayoral election, in which the relocation of Futenma base to Henoko will be a key point of contention. However, it is viewed as inevitable that Okinawa voters' anger at repeated accidents involving U.S. military aircraft will have some influence on the election.

A high-ranking official of the prefectural government expressed strong displeasure at the LDP's argument. "It'd take at least 10 years to complete the base relocation to Henoko. Do they intend to leave the danger posed by the base until then?" the official said.

Kazuma Oshiro, a prefectural assembly member who supports Gov. Onaga, dismissed the LDP's argument that the danger would be eliminated if Futenma base is to be moved to Henoko. "Accidents involving U.S. military planes will occur as long as U.S. bases remain in Okinawa. Arguments that the danger will be eliminated once the (Futenma) base is shifted to Henoko are illogical, and prefectural residents will never be deceived by such arguments," Oshiro said.

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