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Futenma relocation looms large as talks to continue

Date Posted: 2010-12-02

The message from Hirokazu Nakaima is clear: Okinawa “no longer has room” to relocate Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from central Okinawa’s Ginowan City to a sparsely populated area of the Henoko District in northern Okinawa’s Nago City. Or is it?

Does the Okinawa governor’s stance mean a Futenma move is dead? That’s the multi-million yen question in the aftermath of Sunday’s gubernatorial election in which Nakaima outdistanced anti-base challenger Yoichi Iha to win reelection. Heading in to the election, the central government and its Democratic Party of Japan was thinking a Nakaima victory was the only way the base transfer process could remain alive. After all, the governor has said “U.S. Forces are not only for Okinawa, but for all of Japan. Realistically, it’s become quite difficult to find a transfer location within the prefecture, so I ask the central government once again to find a new site by considering the whole of Japan.”

Not quite an endorsement for moving Futenma to Henoko, but certainly not an arbitrary and capricious ‘no’. “I’ve demanded the central government review the Japan-U.S. agreement and transfer the base outside the prefecture,” Nakaima says, “so I’ll wait to see how the government deals with that.” His rhetoric ranged from somewhat strong, saying a relocation plan would be impossible and that since security as a country-wide issue, all of Japan should be involved, but that he would listen to the government’s position, to the final days of pre-election campaigning in which he didn’t even mention the military bases issue.

Instead, Nakaima put the focus on the economy, and how he would promote regional economies, health and nursing care, and improve economic and social welfare issues. Some observers think the governor was giving himself some wiggle room in light of recent developments in North Korea, and with Chinese venturing into Okinawan waters at the Senkaku Islands. He’s said publicly that the issue needs to be reviewed by the Nago municipal government, perhaps hoping the northern Okinawa community would ultimately accept the new base in exchange for much needed economic incentives.

Nakaima, an opposition Liberal Democratic Party politician who was formerly a leader in the International Trade and Industry Ministry, is careful to avoid ruffling the central government’s feathers. He says there’s no need to cut ties, and is promoting an extension of an economic promotion plan set to expire a fiscal year from now. The nation’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, is said to be readying a visit to Okinawa to rebuild relations with Nakaima, a move that would include finding the key to persuading Nakaima to approve the land reclamation project needed for building the new airfield.

He’s talked specifically about the risks in the southern islands of his prefecture. “Due to the Senkaku Islands incident, I realize anew the fact that remote islands define the territorial edges of this country,” Nakaima said, adding “I want to work to promote the remote islands’ economies including lower airfares.”

Washington and Japan are breathing easier with Nakaima’s victory. The recent events in North Korea have renewed concerns of regional security threats, and are viewing Okinawa with a more critical eye. The U.S. wants to maintain its strong presence, including the air wing, even as it proposes relocating 8,600 combat Marines to Guam in the decade ahead. Ruling DPJ leaders are still in favor of relocating Futenma within Okinawa, although its local Okinawa office is bucking the national leadership.

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