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Japan defense minister on fact-finding mission

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by Mindy Aguon

Guam - Guam is playing host to a very important visitor from the Land of the Rising Sun.  Japan Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa arrived last night from Narita to begin his tour of our island, as he's here to gather information about Guam and bring it back home for more discussion on the proposed Marines' relocation from Okinawa to Guam.

We should point out that his visit comes in the midst of intense debate and discussion about the Futenma Replacement Facility, which has been a point of contention between the United States and Japan for several years.  You may recall it was in September last year.

A report was released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that stated if the Futenma facility in Okinawa is not built, "The Marines relocation to Guam may be delayed.  Department of Defense officials view the success of the Futenma Replacement Facility as a key objective of the initiative that will need to be completed for other realignment actions to take place".

One of the key reasons why Japan has been against the replacement facility, which was identified to be relocated to Henoko Bay in the northeastern coast of Okinawa is because it would be built in prime habitat for the dugong.  The dugong's are a national treasure to the people of Japan, which are critically endangered and protected under the National Historic Preservation Act.

Whether Guam is in fact a prime location to move the Futenma air base was part of Japan Defense Minister Kitazawa's fact-finding mission today.  Kitazawa just wrapped-up a tour of the island's military installations, seeing first-hand where thousands of Marines currently stationed in Okinawa will be relocated in the coming years.

Either Guam or Iwoto (the area formerly known as Iwo Jima), could be home to the U.S. Marines Corps' Futenma air base, if the Japanese government has its way.  But the United States is sticking to its guns and the status of forces agreement signed between the U.S. and Japan in 2006 that details the relocation of thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

But since taking office in September, the Democratic Party of Japan has questioned that agreement.  More recently, the center of dispute is the relocation of the Futenma air base.  The U.S. maintains the relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam cannot move forward until the Futenma Replacement Facility is finalized.

In the Status of Forces Agreement, Japan and the U.S. agreed to relocate the base to a new airstrip to be built on the coast at Camp Schwab in Henoko in the northern part of Okinawa Island.  But Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has indicated to Japanese media that the relocation site could change and he's even suggested moving the facility to Guam.

It's something Kitazawa briefly discussed during a courtesy call to Governor Felix Camacho this afternoon.

"I stated to him that Guam has a population of 170,000 people, we have only 210 square miles of land available; but as a small economy we are extremely limited in our capacity to play host," said the governor.  "If they do make decisions as it affects Guam that they must be considerate of the host island, which is Guam and her people and the ability to accommodate whatever their decisions are and they must be fair and must be considerate to the people of Guam."

Aside from the Futenma issue, Kitazawa through an interpreter said he felt Guam was a suitable place for the relocation of Okinawa troops after touring military installations such as NCTAMS, Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base today.  "The purpose of my visit is to see in accordance with the agreement made both with the government of Japan and United States," he stated.  "It's my goal is country stationed in Okinawa will be located to Guam.  As the minister of defense I thought I need to see the site on site by my eyes to deepen my understanding to this association."

Local media were not allowed to attend the defense minister's tour today, although a group of Japanese media accompanied Kitazawa on his trip.  His visit comes as Japan's prime minister has stated that the country will earmark money in its Fiscal Year 2010 budget for the relocation of Futenma and the relocation of Marines to Guam.

But its unclear how soon the Japanese government will make a decision on the controversial air base and how that decision will impact the planned buildup for Guam as wire reports indicate that bilateral talks have been suspended indefinitely.

A press conference is scheduled to be held at this hour with Kitazawa.

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