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Japan’s Plan for a New JGSDF Training Site in Okinawa Stokes Opposition

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Japan’s Plan for a New JGSDF Training Site in Okinawa Stokes Opposition

The Ministry of Defense plans to build a new training ground for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in the central area of Okinawa’s main island.

Japan’s Plan for a New JGSDF Training Site in Okinawa Stokes Opposition
Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

The Japanese Ministry of Defense plans to build a new training ground for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) in the central area of Okinawa’s main island, drawing strong opposition from local residents. Should the central government forcibly execute the plan, this could be yet another tinder box in pacificist Okinawa, the nation’s politically and militarily sensitive island.

Defense officials held a briefing session on the plan for about 280 local attendees in Uruma City of Okinawa Prefecture on February 11, according to a document released by the Defense Ministry

The ministry said it will buy 20 hectares of land, located on a former golf course in the city in fiscal year 2024, conduct a survey design in FY 2025, and then start construction for the JGSDF training site in FY 2026.

Including this acquisition cost, the ministry has earmarked 47.3 billion yen ($315 million) for expenditures on construction of SDF facilities in Okinawa Prefecture in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

The plan is part of Japan’s increased efforts to fundamentally strengthen defense capabilities in its southwestern Nansei Island chain, which includes Okinawa. The full island chain spans about 1,200 kilometers, extending from the southern tip of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, to near Taiwan. 

Over the past few years, Beijing has shown increasing assertiveness around Taiwan and the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, also known in China as the Diaoyu Islands. The uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

The Defense Ministry began discussing this new training ground plan after the administration of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in December 2022 approved three key security documents, which will guide the nation’s foreign and defense policies for the next 10 years. 

Specifically, the Defense Buildup Program, one of those three documents, included a policy to reorganize the 15th Brigade of the JGSDF, which has its headquarters at Camp Naha on Okinawa with about 2,000 service members, to a division with about 3,000 personnel by the end of fiscal year 2027. 

At a press conference on February 13, Japan’s Defense Minister Kihara Minoru emphasized the need to build a new training site as the number of JGSDF members in the Nansei Islands region increases and as the existing training infrastructure is expected to be inadequate. 

In the press conference, Kihara also tried to ease concerns among Okinawans about noise, chemical pollution, and accidents that can be brought about by the new training site.

He stressed that live ammunition and blank ammunition should not be used under any circumstances, that helicopters should not be used except in times of disaster or emergency, and that night training should not be conducted without prior notice. 

“We consider it is necessary to strive to minimize the impact on the surrounding area, so we will do our best to take substantive measures,” Kihara also said at a news conference on December 26 last year. 

But as time passed, opposition to the plan grew louder. All local city council members, both from the ruling and opposition parties, are now calling for the plan to be scrapped, according to a new report by the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper in Okinawa on February 16.

The planned site is adjacent to a prefectural youth center, where elementary, junior high, and high school students spend time.  This facility is used for all kinds of youth and youth educator training sessions and also provides space and opportunities for a wide array of activities, including cultural, artistic, athletic, mountaineering, and camping pursuits. 

Ishihara Shoji, president of the Okinawa Prefecture Ishikawa Youth Center, told The Diplomat by phone on February 16 that more than 40,000 people use the center annually.

“It is impossible to construct a JGSDF training ground next to an educational facility. The planned site is also surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Construction of training facilities is never allowed,” Ishihara said.

On February 16. Kihara visited the main island of Okinawa for the first time since he took office in September 2023. He will meet with Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki on February 17. They are expected to discuss issues such as this planned JGSDF training site and the long-standing, thorny issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to a new base in Henoko.