MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, Japan (AP) — Located smack in the center of a crowded city, the Marine base on Okinawa is at the epicenter of a yawning rift between Tokyo and Washington, posing a challenge to the United States' most important alliance in the Pacific.
Everyone agrees the base on southern Japan's Okinawa Island should be shut down and moved. The problem is where. Col. Dale Smith, who commands the base, is undaunted.
"We operate just fine out of Futenma," he told The Associated Press on Friday in his first interview with the media. "When a new facility is built and it's fully operational, that's the day that we will close our doors. We do not have any problem with the way we do business out of the current location of Futenma as it is now, though."
Futenma, which has been used by the U.S. since the closing days of World War II, is a classic "not in my backyard" issue.
Residents want it shut down and moved.
It's too noisy and dangerous, say the Okinawans who host it. It blocks potentially lucrative development, they say. It presents too big a burden.
But for more than a decade the Japanese government has dithered about where a replacement facility should be located. The United States has insisted that any replacement for the air station must be built on Okinawa so that air support will be close to troops on the ground, an option many Okinawans virulently oppose.
Deepening the rift, Japan's new progressive administration, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, reportedly informed Washington this week that an agreement to move the base to a less crowded area on Okinawa's north was off the table.
Hatoyama has said he wants to announce a new site by the end of next month, but his coalition government is divided over the issue and calls are growing for it to be moved off Okinawa or outside of Japan altogether.
Okinawan public opinion, meanwhile, remains emotional.
"The idea that Okinawa has to accept the bases because no one else wants them just won't cut it anymore," the Okinawa Times newspaper said in an editorial on Friday. "Futenma is an issue not just for the administration or for parliament, but for each citizen in our nation to face."
Resolving the matter is also key to America's future global military posture.
Until the Futenma replacement site is agreed upon, Washington says it cannot go ahead with a sweeping realignment plan that would send 8,600 of the 18,000 Marines on Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam by 2014.
Smith refused to comment on the ongoing political negotiations, citing their sensitivity and saying that the final decision must now be left up to politicians and the top-level military brass.
"There is a certain amount of speculation or conjecture with regard to what the future could hold," he said. "But the fact remains, Futenma is there."
In the meantime, he said, the Marines are focused on carrying out their mission, which he said has contributed, through maintaining a strong U.S. presence, to keeping the peace in a volatile region.
He argued, however, that the emphasis on the dangers of helicopters and military cargo planes flying in and out of a city that has roughly the same population density as Tokyo is overblown.
"The pilots are not under stress. They are professionals. They operate the aircraft as safely, if not more so, than anywhere else in the world," he said. "We have added safety measures that we believe absolutely counter accusations, comments and possible disinformation that Futenma is operated unsafely or represents an unsafe air station."
Still, accidents do happen.
Public uproar in 2004 led to a new agreement in 2006 to close the base and revise flight patterns. A helicopter crashed on the Okinawa International University campus near the base, but it was closed at the time and no one was killed on the ground.
Today, the base is closed on Sundays and flights are only allowed between 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m, said Col. Robert Brassaw, commanding officer of the Marine Aircraft Group on Futenma.
"We try to get to a high altitude as fast as we can," Brassaw said. "The amount of time we spend over neighborhoods is only one or two minutes."
Smith said the Marines are trying to work more closely with local officials, and to win hearts and minds among the public by hosting more joint events and reaching out more to the community.
But he said there is only so much the Marines can do.
"If there is something that they have a personal problem with, my door is always open," Smith said. "Many times, there is no leeway because we have to train, we have to be open at certain times to facilitate training ... That's just a fact that we can't get around."
Over the years, tens of thousands of protesters have regularly hit the streets of Okinawa to demand the base's closure. Winning over the Okinawans remains an uphill battle — even on base.
Yusho Yamanaha, a 75-year-old retiree who has a small onion and carrot farm inside the base's fences, said he would happily give up his plot if the base were moved.
"It should be closed," he said. "It's just too dangerous."