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Prime Minister running out of choices for Futenma

Date Posted: 2010-04-29

Yukio Hatoyama is finding himself deeper and deeper in the quagmire called Futenma, and the ways of means of escaping are becoming fewer and fewer.

The Japanese Prime Minister’s options became more narrow in the wake of Sunday’s massive anti-Futenma and anti-Hatoyama demonstration in Yomitan that drew somewhere between 50,000~90,000 participants. Bottom line from Okinawans: We don’t want Futenma, so move it somewhere else. Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, an independent politician who had the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party in the past, told the Prime Minister “never give up, and handle the issue appropriately.”

How Hatoyama’s going to do that is the stuff that political pundits are having a field day with. A day before the Okinawa rally, Hatoyama signaled that making revisions to the 2006 agreement between Japan and the United States wouldn’t work. Under that agreement, Futenma Marine Corps Air Station was to be moved from Ginowan City to Henoko District of Nago City, with part of the airbase on the Marines’ Camp Schwab, with the two 2,500-meter V-shape runways extending on reclaimed land in Oura Bay.

“When I stood by the waters of Henoko,” Hatoyama said, “I felt very strongly that creating a landfill over those waters would defile nature. The current agreement should not be accepted.” His words aren’t ringing in concert with those of his Foreign Minister and Defense Minister, who was being quoted as saying the U.S. would likely approve minor changes in runway locations under the 2006 agreement, making it palatable. By Sunday night, though, both Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada were denying reports in the Washington Post that Japan was ready to accept, in principle, the 2006 agreement.

Hatoyama’s administration has been considering moving the Futenma operations to Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, but again, opposition there is fierce. The island’s three mayors have all rejected the notion, and have even refused to meet with Hatoyama or his Chief Cabinet Secretary to discuss the concept. On top of that, American military leaders have rejected the Tokunoshima plan as unworkable.

The Prime Minister is not denying weekend reports that America has offered to move the runways at Camp Schwab further offshore, if that’s the key to getting the deal done. “I am sorry, but we are seriously studying a government plan right now,” said Hatoyama, “so at this stage I cannot say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to each idea. Please understand that.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, tossed cold water on the idea, telling reporters “if that happens, what have we been studying for these six or seven months? And it wouldn’t help reduce Okinawa’s burden.”

Further complicating Hatoyama’s predicament, the Defense Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, has pressed the Prime Minister to consider keeping the Camp Schwab plan from 2006, but changing a land reclamation project to a pile-supported platform or a mega-float for the runway instead. Kitazawa contends it would be easier to get consent from local Okinawa communities for the Camp Schwab plan than it would for any other. The Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, met with the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, on Friday to discuss the modifications.

The United States, for its part, has bounced its own ideas off the Japanese government, including honoring the demand from Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, that the runways be moved further offshore. Washington has also offered to sweeten the pot by returning bombing ranges on Kumejima and Torishima back to Japan, along with a stretch of water east of Okinawa. The carrot dangled on the stick is that Japan must implement the 2006 Futenma Relocation Plan in order to get the other land back.

Moving the runways less than 50 meters would not require any new environmental assessments at Oura Bay. The U.S. Ambassador signaled the 2006 Agreement is the best way to proceed, even in the wake of the numerous anti-Futenma protests.

Hatoyama is still making the promise he’ll have everything resolved by the end of May. Japan has wanted the two bombing ranges, as well as the water areas, returned to its control. The question will be how badly the Prime Minister wants to take those political plums and cash them in for political equity while leaving Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture. A diplomatic source says, “The Japanese government has begun internal negotiations on modifying the current plan, and has notified the U.S. side of the modified plan.” He described the modified plan as being designed to be “environmentally friendly”, with one of the two V-shape runways being built in an area requiring no land reclamation, while the length of the runways would be shortened. He said the mega-float, a huge floating structure on the Oura Bay waters, would be built off the coast of Camp Schwab.

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