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Prime Minister to press ahead on Futenma Move

Date Posted: 2011-10-21

Japan’s Defense Minister has been in Okinawa to explain the central government’s position on relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to northern Okinawa, and the Foreign Minister’s here now trying to do the same thing, but this island prefecture’s leaders don’t seem impressed.

Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa explained to Governor Hirokazu Nakaima earlier this week that Tokyo fully intends to submit its environmental impact assessment for shifting Futenma to Henoko, a district of Nago City, before the end of the year, signaling that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda intends to go ahead with a five-year-old plan for moving the base within the prefecture. Nakaima listened, then criticized the Defense Minister and told him Okinawans want the unpopular airbase moved off Okinawa.

The governor presented Ichikawa with a petition that formally called for relocating the controversial base outside the prefecture, telling him keeping the base in Okinawa would be difficult. “Even if you insist it must be Henoko, people of this prefecture are still angry,” said Nakaima, “because of the fact that the Democratic Party of Japan supported a candidate who opposed the relocation in the Nago mayoral election 18 months ago, but the issue hasn’t been settled.”

Nakaima bluntly told the Defense Minister the environmental impact statement won’t be processed by the prefecture if it’s not written properly, adding “approving land reclamation is not so simple.” Relocating Futenma to Henoko involves massive land reclamation in Oura Bay to handle the pair of 2,500-meter V-shape runways.

Koichiro Genba, the Foreign Minister, is now in Okinawa for his own round of meetings to persuade Nakaima to support the government plan for relocating Futenma. He’s also visited the two locations in Ginowan City and at Camp Schwab in Nago City, holding talks with both senior U.S. military officials and local government leaders. He’s the third member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet to visit Okinawa. In addition to Ichikawa, Tatsuo Kawabata, the Minister for Okinawa Affairs, came to check out the situation.

Prime Minister Noda is expected to pay a visit of his own to Okinawa next week, wanting a firsthand look at the situation before his scheduled meetings with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Japan October 25th. Japan and the United States have agreed to defer the completion date for relocating Futenma beyond the original 2014 deadline, but U.S. President Barack Obama has told Noda he wants to see progress on the Futenma matter. Noda’s explained the complicated politics of the relocation, telling Obama he’s trying to win the understanding of the Okinawan people.

The relocation project has become a political football both in Japan and the United States, with some American lawmakers—including Senators John McCain, R-Arizona, James Webb, D-Virginia, and Carl Levin, D-Michigan—boldly opposing the move as costly and unworkable. The project’s been in limbo since October 2009, when Governor Nakaima, submitted an interim report opposing Henoko. Tokyo’s central government has said, however, that Nakaima’s opinion isn’t enough reason to stop the relocation project, but the current administration says it would like Nakaima’s understanding and support to make the project go more smoothly.

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