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PM, FM not in sync: No Futenma decision likely anytime soon

Date Posted: 2009-11-25

The Prime Minister says Japan “must recognize the extreme suffering” of Okinawans before any decision is made on relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from Ginowan City to anywhere.

Yukio Hatoyama says he’s in no hurry to make a decision on where to relocate the controversial airfield, and hints no answers will be forthcoming before the end of the year. His Foreign Minister, on the other hand, is pressing for a Futenma decision before the end of December. Katsuya Okada says “It is desirable to reach a conclusion by the end of December,” explaining it would be helpful as the fiscal year 2010 Japan budget is prepared.

Okada concedes he and his boss aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on the issue, but still says “our views are not so different.” Okada, who has for weeks been suggesting and pressing the notion of consolidating Futenma at Kadena Air Base, is now signaling a position shift toward accepting the Henoko relocation plan. Henoko, a district belonging to Nago City, was chosen in May 2006 by Japan and the U.S. to be the site for a new airfield. It was to be built on the Marines’ Camp Schwab, with a pair of V-shape runways constructed on reclaimed land in Oura Bay.

The Foreign Minister visited Okinawa last week, pressing his case for the Kadena consolidation, which is being met with opposition both from the United States and the Okinawan communities that surround the sprawling American airbase. Okada is now reported leaning toward considering the 2006 plan as the clock ticks toward a decision.

As the politicians talk, a working group comprised of both Japanese and U.S. members is developing a written agreement on the relocation issue. It is supposed to be complete by the end of the year. The working group has members working on behalf of the Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministers, and also for the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State. The final document is expected to spell out thoughts, plans and opinions from both sides.

Okada, Hatoyama and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa have met at the prime minister’s office, where the three are trying to hammer out a strategy for reducing the military burdens on Okinawa. “We’re examining the options,” says Hatoyama as he talks about reviews being conducted of the Futenma relocation to Henoko plan.

Meanwhile, Okinawa’s governor is becoming more frustrated by the delays, and is now predicting potentially dire consequences for the agreement. Governor Hirokazu Nakaima says it is becoming “extremely difficult” to implement the Futenma relocation agreement, and warns the situation could get even worse if Yoshikazu Shimabukuro doesn’t win reelection as Nago City’s mayor in January.

Shimabukuro has basically agreed to the Henoko airfield project, but a former local school board superintendent is challenging him. Susumu Inamine is expected to toss his hat into the mayoral election ring, and he’s opposed to moving Futenma to the Nago area.

The existing plan calls for the replacement airfield to be completed by 2014, at which time Futenma would be closed. The deal also stipulates that 8,000 U.S. Marines will be shifted from Okinawa to Guam once the new Henoko airfield is open.

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