Editorial: Governor should declare opposition to resumption of Takae helipad construction

July 13, 2016 Ryukyu Shimpo

The United States military and the government should cancel their plan to build helipads in the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area near Takae in Higashi Village.

The construction of helipads to be used by Osprey will harm not only the living environment of nearby residents, but also the habitats and ecosystems of the precious flora and fauna of the Yambaru area of northern Okinawa Island, which has even been considered a candidate for registration as a World Heritage nature site.

Early in the morning the day after voting was held for the Upper House election, the Okinawa Defense Bureau pushed forward with resuming the helipad construction, forcefully transporting materials into the construction site. Opposition to the helipad construction derives from the same sentiment as the overwhelming opposition to the Henoko new base construction plan, which was displayed in the Upper House election. It is hoped that Governor Onaga will clearly voice opposition to the helipad construction, which tramples upon the will of the people.

A blatant pre-election measure

The Defense Bureau avoided doing any work during the election campaign period, then jumped to resume construction the moment the votes were in. This was a blatant measure taken with the election in mind. They displayed not a hint of willingness to face voices of opposition from the people of Okinawa prefecture or local residents.

It is only natural that Governor Onaga announced, “[The Defense Bureau] conducted thorough preparations [to resume the construction] just hours after the will of the people was expressed in the election. That is unacceptable.”

The way in which the return of a part of the Northern Training Area was negotiated with the condition of relocating the helipads in exchange was highly problematic to begin with.

The return of a part of the Northern Training Area was included in the final report of the U.S.-Japan Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) in 1996, and the condition of relocating the existing helipads was not decided based on discussions with the Okinawa prefectural government, local governmental bodies, or local residents.

Although a part of the facilities within the Northern Training Area that had become unnecessary to the U.S. military were to be returned, the vested interest of the existing helipads would be maintained. This is identical to the case of Futenma, in which U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which has become difficult for the U.S. military to use due to the dangers of being located in the middle of a city, will be returned, but at the same time, the construction of a new base in Henoko is being pushed forward in order to maintain and fortify the military functions served by Futenma.

The “reduction of burden on Okinawa” is used as a pretext, but in substance, policies relating to U.S. bases in Okinawa are filled with deceit, serving to preserve and fortify facilities that serve the interests of the U.S. military.

Twenty years after the publication of the 1996 SACO report, U.S. military strategy has changed significantly. One major change is the decrease in relative importance of the U.S. Marines in Okinawa, as seen in the plan to relocate 9,000 Marines to Guam and other places outside Japan.

Although the majority of infantrymen, the nucleus of the key operational unit, will be moved to Guam, the Japanese government continues to cling to the idea of building a new base in Henoko, to be used by the transport helicopter unit. The Japanese government should fundamentally rethink the plan to build a new base in Henoko. It is only natural that they should also simultaneously rethink the relocation of helipads in the Northern Training Area. As a reduction in training is anticipated with the relocation of a large number of Marine Corps personnel to Guam, it makes no sense to maintain the current number of helipads. The government needs to get out of its rut of refusing to think.

Destruction of lives and ecosystems

Observers point to a problem that cannot be overlooked—when an environmental impact assessment was conducted prior to the helipad relocation, it did not assess the impact of use of the helipads by Osprey.

It is noted that Osprey have a significantly larger impact on the lives of residents and on the natural environment than conventional helicopters, due in part to low-frequency sound they emit. The environmental impact assessment was accepted despite being flawed in that it did not survey the anticipated impact of the Osprey.

In January of this year, Governor Onaga requested that the Okinawa Defense Bureau take twenty-two environmental conservation measures spanning eight categories, including a survey of the impact of noise and high-temperature heat exhaust emitted by Osprey on plants and animals inhabiting the affected areas.
It is utterly impermissible for the Defense Bureau resume construction on the helipads without so much as lending an ear to this reasonable request.

During the campaign leading up to the Upper House election, Osprey repeatedly conducted nighttime takeoff and landing exercises at the already-built N4 zone helipad in Takae, forcing local elementary and middle schoolers to miss school due to sleep deprivation.

Construction and use of the helipads is being pushed forward despite opposition from residents and concerns about their impact. Those concerns have become reality as the residents and children of Takae are now suffering harm equivalent to a violation of their human rights.

Prior to the gubernatorial election two years ago, Governor Onaga stated regarding the Takae helipads, “I oppose [them] in line with my demand for the removal of the Osprey.” From the perspective of protecting the human rights of Okinawans and the precious nature of the northern part of the island, Governor Onaga should take a resolute stand in opposition to the helipad construction.

(English translation by T&CT and Sandi Aritza)

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