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Prefecture holding breath on Obama changes

Date Posted: 2008-12-11

The inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States is still more than a month away, but both sides of the aisle in the Okinawa Prefecture Assembly are anxiously awaiting signals on which way he’ll go on Okinawa issues.

Opposition lawmakers are banking on expectations the new Democratic administration will make significant changes to the U.S. ~ Japan security policies that call for Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Ginowan City to transition to a new site in northern Okinawa. They’re opposed to the move, and have long sought to scuttle plans for the new airfield on Camp Schwab, with runways extending into nearby Oura Bay.

“We are very interested to see his new government policy,” says Socialist party member Tsuguyuki Sakiyama. “Is the change going to happen to stop the transfer or not?” The opposition gained control of the Okinawa Prefecture Assembly last June, but has limited ability to slow or stop the plans agreed to by the two governments. .

The Assembly Speaker, Zenshin Takamine, says “we’re hoping the new administration will listen to the voices of Okinawa who don’t want a replacement airport.” Opposition lawmakers have already visited with president-elect Obama’s foreign policy advisors to express their opinions.” Takamine says Obama’s staff ”understands it will be difficult to change relocation plans” but remains optimistic they’re listening. He reiterated “the assembly’s stance not to permit any new military bases” on Okinawa, and says Obama’s staff understands the base at Henoko would be a “further burden on Okinawan people.”

Okinawa’s governor is a bit more reserved in looking at the incoming administration positions. “I’m very curious to see about this new president-elect,” says Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, “and what he’s going to do. I need to collect information about him in more detail,” he says. Nakaima has basically endorsed plans for the replacement airfield.

Japan and the United States have agreed on a plan to move Futenma to Henoko as part of a deal that will ultimately shift 8,000 Marines and their families off Okinawa to Guam by 2014. That deal is contingent, though, on Henoko being built. Opponents argue it shouldn’t, because of environmental concerns to both the dugong, a saltwater manatee living in Oura Bay, and damage to coral.
The issues have been thrashed about during the prefecture Assembly’s business meetings.

Equally high on the concerns list were questions about closing government branch offices in Miyakojima City and Ishigaki Island as cost-saving measures. Opposition lawmakers are asking how the Prefecture decided the closure policy, and questioned how administrative services to citizens, and crisis management operations could be maintained without them.

The Prefecture is assuring lawmakers it will “take good care of headquarters, with business being done by specialists to serve citizens.” Even after the reforms, prefecture official say, “we’ll keep meeting with citizens and liaison offices will be in place.

Debate continued in the Assembly on whether to privatize the Prefecture-owned hospital, and little was resolved. Merits of privatization have been weighed against perceived changes in services that could come, but questions about where to locate enough money to keep the system going ‘as is’ have lawmakers going back to the books.

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