TOKYO -- The Japanese government is expected to buy an uninhabited island in southwestern Kagoshima Prefecture for U.S. forces to practice aircraft carrier landings, allowing the training to be transferred away from bases in populated areas, according to people familiar with the talks.
The individuals revealed that negotiators for the government and Taston Airport Co., which owns Mageshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, have reached a breakthrough on the contentious issue of price, now set at between 11 and 14 billion yen. The deal would pave the way for U.S. forces to use the island for field carrier landing practice (FCLP), in which military aircraft use an airstrip as a mock aircraft carrier deck for repeated takeoff and landing training.
Because of the excessive noise, FCLP has mainly been conducted on Iwo Jima, an island some 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo, since 1991. However, when the Iwo Jima runway is closed due to inclement weather, U.S. forces shift the exercises to Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo, or to Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan, and the training has drawn heavy criticism for noise pollution.
The prefectural government of Yamaguchi in western Japan, where U.S. carrier aircraft are stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, has also sought central government intervention to settle the noise issue.
With a breakthrough on Mageshima in sight, the Japanese government is also eyeing moving U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey training to the island from the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.
Under a June 2011 agreement in a 2-plus-2 meeting of foreign and defense ministers from Japan and the United States, the countries named Mageshima as a candidate site to relocate the FCLP training. Full-fledged negotiations began in 2016, but the government and the land owner were initially far apart on price, with Taston seeking some 20 billion yen and the government offering about 5 billion yen.
The stalemate began to thaw after October this year when the new head of Taston began to suggest flexibility on the price was possible, according to people familiar with the matter.
Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya indicated willingness to accelerate the talks in an Oct. 26 press conference, saying that it is "extremely important to secure an FCLP facility in terms of national security."
Having FCLP conducted on Mageshima, which is about 400 kilometers southwest of the Iwakuni air station, has advantages for U.S. forces over flying all the way to Iwo Jima, roughly 1,400 kilometers southeast of Iwakuni.
Once the Mageshima negotiation is settled, the government intends to explain its plans for moving the training and seek the understanding of local stakeholders. In March 2017, an anti-FCLP candidate named Shunsuke Yaita won the mayoralty of the city of Nishinoomote, where the island is located.
Yet Yaita has expressed a "neutral attitude" on the issue since assuming office, and city residents hope the training relocation will have a positive impact on the local economy. The local doctors' association and some local fishermen are against the government plan.
(Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita, Political News Department, and In Tanaka, Kagoshima Bureau)