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Foreign Minister riles Okinawans: Okada wants decision soon on Futenma relocation

Date Posted: 2009-12-11

Katsuya Okada doesn’t seem to be able to please anyone these days, irritating Okinawans who listened to his town hall meeting in Nago City but “wondered what he came for”, and the Prime Minister who doesn’t’ agree with the Foreign Minister’s belief the Futenma issue should be settled immediately, Yukio Hatoyama saying he won’t make any decisions this year.

A member of the Nago Municipal Assembly, Yoshitami Oshiro, took Okada to task for “mostly making excuses” during the hour-long meeting in Nago City. The 69-year-old Assemblyman was but one of dozens displeased by Okada’s appearance before an exclusive crowd of about 100 Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers and supporters. Even Denny Tamaki, the DPJ lawmaker who organized the session with Okada, questioned what the Foreign Minister achieved, and said he had no idea how his answers would fit in with other cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister and even the United States.

Okada, speaking behind closed doors for the bulk of the meeting, told the crowd “I am alarmed we may lose the trust of the United States if we try to scrap, in a one-sided way, the Japan-U.S. agreement when the United States is telling Japan to comply with it.” Except for Okada’s opening statement, the session was closed to the media. “It was as if he came to make excuses, rather than coming to hear our opinions”, said 65-year-old Ikuo Nishikawa, a local hardware store manager in Nago City, near the site of the proposed new airfield that would replace Futenma. Nishikawa said “I won’t vote for the DPJ in the House of Councillors election next year unless [the government] relocates [the U.S. facility] outside the prefecture."

At a news conference in Naha City, Okada echoed his earlier remarks, calling Futenma “an issue that Japan and the United States discussed for a long time and we’re not going to bring it back to the drawing board. I think the Obama administration has left little room for discussion.” Still, Okada tried to sound sympathetic, telling Okinawans that while he wanted “to reduce the burden of people in Okinawa, a faithful relationship is essential.”

The Foreign Minister, after weeks of championing a proposal to move Futenma operations to Kadena Air Base, backed off, hinting heavily the idea was dead. He told an Okinawa newspaper the idea simply wasn’t feasible, and didn’t gain traction with any political faction or the communities that surround Kadena Air Base. He drew criticism from meeting attendees when he said “there have been doubts as to whether the issue can be settled by the end of the year, and it has become a real problem, so I must break the stalemate.” Nishikawa said “it was as if he came to make excuses, rather than coming to hear our opinions. The minister probably just wanted an alibi so he could say he had listened to the people.” Other disgruntled participants were even more vocal, asking Okada “Why don’t you abolish the Futenma base?”, “How’s the government going to deal with Kadena Air Base?”, and “We’re Japanese. Do you care more for the U.S. than us?”

Ginowan City mayor Yoichi Iha, whose city hosts the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, was angry about his meeting with Okada. “The minister was quite irritated, because what I said was different from his idea,” Iha said. “I felt as if I was being accused, and I got the impression the minister was being cornered.” Okada told Iha dealing with Futenma was a “tough” situation, adding “going on like this could lead to the situation that should be feared most,” that failure to approve the move to Henoko in northern Okinawa could lead to Futenma not being closed for a long time.

The Prime Minister, for his part, was signaling there would likely be no final decisions on the Futenma issue this year. However, Yukio Hatoyama Monday softened on the decision process, saying he will inform the United States of its policy on Futenma by December 18th, when he hopes to meet the U.S. President, Barack Obama, during environmental meetings in Copenhagen. “I would be grateful if I can meet with President Obama there,” he says, “because I would like to explain the government’s policy by then in some way, and seek understanding from the United States.”

The December announcement is not, says Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, the final round of decisions. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Transport Minister Seiji Maehara, who also holds responsibilities for Okinawan Affairs, all met in the Prime Minister’s Office with Hatoyama and Hirano.

After meeting with his Defense Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, Yukio Hatoyama said there are no quick plans for deciding the Futenma issue. Many see Hatoyama’s reluctance to make a decision as political reality, with the two junior coalition partners in his administration threatening to pull out if he doesn’t make a decision to move Futenma out of Okinawa. The Social Democratic Party’s president has already made a formal threat to pull her five votes, while the People’s New Party is making squawking noises of its own on foreign policy topics.

Hatoyama, speaking in Tokyo, has again said it will be next year sometime before he makes a decision. Defense Minister Kitazawa, like his Foreign Minister cabinet partner, has been pressing Hatoyama to end discussion and make an immediate decision. Funding in the 2010 Japan budget already has money included for moving the Futenma relocation project forward.

Nago City made its decision nearly a decade ago to accept a Futenma move into its territorial boundaries, but some are now hoping upcoming mayoral elections in January could reverse that endorsement and further complicate the relocation. Hatoyama himself is standing firm, and rumblings coming from his inner circle are equally strong. “There is no need to be afraid of the United States,” said one. “It was impossible in the first place to settle the issue by the end of the year.” Under terms of the 2006 deal between the U.S. and Japan, as approved by the former Liberal Democratic Party-led administration, Futenma was to be relocated to Henoko District by 2014,

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