TOKYO — Opponents of planned U.S. helipads on Japan's southern island of Okinawa have stepped up protests in Tokyo after the central government used military aircraft to transport equipment for the project.
The U.S. Marine Corps helipads are to be used by MV-22 Osprey aircraft, which are widely opposed on Okinawa because of concerns that the tilt-rotor hybrid aircraft might be prone to crashes. In exchange for the helipads, the U.S. military has pledged to return part of a jungle training base to civilian use.
The project has been stalled for years because of protests and environmental concerns after two of the six planned helipads were built in Takae, a small village with 150 residents next to a rich forest in northern Okinawa designated a national park.
The controversy resurfaced recently when Japan's government tried to resume construction of the helipads after the relocation of a higher-profile Marine air station also was stalled. After 20 years of delays, preparation for reclamation work at Air Station Futenma's new site, Henoko, began earlier this year but was halted by a legal battle between the central government and Okinawa.
Opposition lawmakers and activists on Thursday accused Japan's government of discriminating against Okinawa by deploying riot police and military from mainland Japan.
The group summoned five defense officials and demanded an explanation of the use of Japanese military aircraft to circumvent the protests.
"It's so unruly," opposition lawmaker Mizuho Fukushima said at the meeting, referring to the way the central government has handled the situation.
The protest escalated after the Defense Ministry used two CH-47 helicopters this week to transport dump trucks and other construction equipment for the helipads, saying they could not otherwise get to the site because of protesters' barricades.
Opponents suspect Japan wants to showcase progress ahead of a visit by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada to Washington, D.C., starting Thursday.
Hundreds of riot police have been brought in from outside Okinawa since mid-July and have forcibly removed opponents' tents and barricades and clashed with protesters and residents, resulting in some injuries and arrests.
Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom until its 1879 annexation by Japan, has faced discrimination by the central government and mainland Japanese, many residents say. The island was occupied by the U.S. for nearly 30 years after Japan's World War II defeat, and still hosts half of the 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan under a bilateral security treaty.
Many Okinawans complain about noise, pollution and crime linked to the U.S. military bases and want the island's burden reduced. Okinawans have demanded that the stalled Marine air station, Futenma, be completely removed from the island instead of being relocated to another area.
"It's been 71 years since the war ended and America is still occupying large parts of Okinawa, freely roaming around Okinawa's skies and waters," Okinawan-born lawmaker Keiko Itokazu said Wednesday. "Okinawa is not treated as an equal of the rest of Japan."