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Japan, Okinawa still split over Futenma relocation

Date Posted: 2012-03-02

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has offered a personal apology to Okinawa over his government’s attitude to the moving of an unpopular U.S. air base.

In his first trip as Prime Minister to the prefecture, Noda told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima he intended to stick with a long-stalled plan to shift the air base, but was sorry for the way the issue had been handled. ‘We mustn’t keep the Futenma air station at its current site,’ Noda told Nakaima, referring to a 2006 agreement for the base to be relocated from its crowded urban location to a sparsely populated coastal zone.

Bowing, Noda added: ‘I apologize to the governor and people of Okinawa for the insincere attitude the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has shown toward the issue.’ Noda added ‘We have to see progress this year in developing Okinawa and reducing your burden’ of hosting U.S. troops.

Noda and Nakaima remained at odds over the relocation of the controversial air base. By stressing the government's intention to make utmost efforts to reduce Okinawa's base-hosting burden, Noda sought Nakaima's understanding of the planned relocation of the base, now in a congested area of Ginowan, Okinawa, to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago, in accordance with an agreement between Tokyo and Washington.

This year, the government must make ‘tangible progress’ in promoting Okinawa's economic development and reducing the prefecture's burden arising from the heavy U.S. military presence, Noda said in his meeting with Nakaima at the Okinawa prefectural government office. Noda said that he strongly feels the state's responsibility for achieving such progress. Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan.

‘The Futenma base should not be kept at its current location,’ Noda said, while noting that U.S. deterrence in Okinawa must be maintained since the security situation surrounding Japan is increasingly tough. The base relocation to Henoko is the only viable option.

But Nakaima reiterated opposition to any plan that will keep the base within the prefecture, telling the Prime Minister ‘Our goal is to have the base moved out of Okinawa. I want the government to study the idea and realize it. Transferring the Futenma base to Henoko will take a lot of time,’ Nakaima said, adding that looking for an alternative site in other parts of Japan would be a quicker solution.

The Noda-Nakaima meeting came after Tokyo and Washington agreed earlier this year to review their roadmap for realigning U.S. forces in Japan by delinking the Futenma transfer and the relocation of 8,000 U.S. Marines in the island prefecture to Guam. The review policy calls for relocating the Marines ahead of the Futenma base transfer, while cutting the number of Marines to be redeployed to Guam to 4,700 and moving the rest to other locations in the Asia-Pacific region. At the 20-minute meeting, Nakaima also sought the government's efforts to scale back and consolidate other U.S. military facilities in Okinawa.

In addition, the Okinawa governor called on the government to review the status-of-forces pact between Japan and the United States to give more investigative authority to Japan over crimes committed by U.S. servicemen and base workers in Japan. Noda replied that the government aims to deal with the matter step by step. He said he wants the issue to be discussed through a liaison committee among the Japanese and U.S. governments, and the governors of Japanese prefectures hosting U.S. bases.

Meanwhile, Nakaima praised the government's fiscal 2012 draft budget, which includes enough spending for promoting the economic growth in Okinawa, and asked for government support for constructing a second runway at Naha Airport. Noda responded positively to the request, saying that construction of the new runway needs to be promoted early. Nakaima said policies drawn up by Noda’s government on boosting Okinawa’s economy ‘are the best in the past several years.’

Noda apologized for gaffes related to the Futenma issue by a former chief of the Defense Ministry Okinawa Defense Bureau and for the confusion caused by the Democratic Party of Japan-led government over the base relocation. In its campaign manifesto for the 2009 House of Representatives election, in which the DPJ scored a landslide victory and took power, the party promised to move Futenma out of Okinawa by reviewing the plan agreed in 2006 between the administration led by the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the U.S. government to relocate the base to the Henoko district. But the DPJ eventually gave up the review and adopted the original plan.

Noda said that his government will accelerate negotiations with the U.S. government so that five U.S. military facilities and land south of the U.S. Air Force's Kadena base in Okinawa will be returned to Japan at an early time in line with the Japan-U.S. agreement to review the realignment roadmap.

After the meeting with Noda, Nakaima told reporters that the prime minister's remarks were not convincing enough. Noda arrived in Okinawa on Sunday on his first visit to the prefecture since he took office in September last year.

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