Monday, December 07, 2009

FOCUS: Okada's visit irks Okinawans as fate of U.S. base remains uncertain

FOCUS: Okada's visit irks Okinawans as fate of U.S. base remains uncertain

December 06 2009 18:21

Following a weekend visit to Okinawa by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada that succeeded in upsetting locals, it remains far from clear how Japan will settle the thorny issue of where to relocate a key U.S. military airfield in the southernmost prefecture.

While Okada was desperate to gain understanding of the difficult situation he finds himself in as he reviews an existing Japan-U.S. accord to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futemma within the prefecture, he did not endear himself to local residents who attended a gathering to exchange opinions with the foreign minister on Saturday.

''I don't think there was any point to this meeting...the minister probably just wanted an alibi so he could say he had listened to the people,'' Ikuo Nishikawa, 65, who runs a hardware store, said after attending the one-hour gathering.

The event was held in the city of Nago, where Futemma's helicopter functions are expected to be relocated under the accord reached between Japan and the United States in 2006. It was arranged by a ruling Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker in line with Okada's wish to listen to ''each citizen's voice'' and not just local leaders. About 100 people took part.

The city of Nago a decade ago agreed to become the planned relocation site for Futemma in order remove the potential danger faced by residents of Ginowan, adjacent to the Futemma base.

But the launch of the DPJ-led government in September has raised hopes among people in Okinawa that the government may seek to move the facility outside the prefecture altogether, since the DPJ has advocated this before winning the Aug. 30 House of Representatives election.

However, Okada started off the meeting with Nago residents by saying that the DPJ's election manifesto did not specifically promise that the Futemma facility would be relocated outside of the prefecture, although it did make reference to reexamining the realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan.

He then went on to say how tough the current situation is, noting that the United States has consistently urged Japan to abide by the 2006 accord. He also said that resolving the issue by the year-end no longer appears easy and referred to the recent threat by the Social Democratic Party to leave the three-party ruling coalition if the government decides to abide by the existing accord.

''I came here with hope and expectations, but now I'm dismayed,'' Nishikawa from Nago's Henoko area said.

''I told the minister how much I expected from the launch of a DPJ government and how local residents have had a hard time (over the issue)...but the minister just said that the situation is tough, and he gave the same answer even to other questions,'' Nishikawa said.

Other participants, clearly irritated by what could be taken as Okada's efforts to get local residents to accept the existing plan, shouted, ''Why don't you decide at an early date to move the facility out the prefecture?'' and ''Are you going to sacrifice Okinawa?''

Meanwhile, outside the public hall, members of civic groups complained that the event was a closed-door meeting, thus limiting the number of people who could take part.

According to the event's organizers, participants in the meeting -- the first 10 minutes of which were open to the media -- were rank-and-file DPJ members.

Yoshitami Oshiro, a 69-year-old Nago city assembly member, criticized Okada for ''mostly making excuses'' in the meeting and said, ''I wonder what he came for.''

Denny Tamaki, the DPJ lawmaker who arranged the meeting, stressed the significance of having Okada directly hear the voices of Okinawa citizens, but admitted that he did not know how the minister would reflect the opinions he had heard in the discussion process with the United States and with other Japanese ministers.

The citizens' meeting was not the only event that day at which Okada's attitude drew criticism.

In the morning, Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha told reporters about a meeting with Okada to discuss the relocation issue.

''The minister was quite irritated...because what I said was different from his idea,'' Iha said. ''I felt as if I was being accused.''

''I also got the impression that the minister is being cornered,'' he added.

Okada, for his part, made no attempt to conceal his discomfort during a press conference Saturday in the city of Naha before returning to Tokyo.

''I am not sure whether I can say with confidence how much the relationship of trust between Japan and the United States will be maintained in the event that we cannot realize the (existing) Japan-U.S. agreement,'' 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, as a foreign minister, I must break the stalemate,'' he said, without elaborating on what he has in mind.

He also indicated to a local daily the same day that he will drop the idea of moving the Futemma facility to the nearby Kadena Air Base -- the option he had floated as a possible alternative to the existing Japan-U.S. agreement.

Negotiations with the United States over the issue ''are reaching their limit,'' he was quoted as saying.

While Okada urged Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama during the press conference to come to an early decision on the issue, possibly in line with the existing plan, officials close to Hatoyama are still talking tough.

''There is no need to be afraid of the United States. It was impossible in the first place to settle the issue by the end of the year,'' a government source said.

Under the 2006 deal, Tokyo and Washington agreed to transfer the Futemma air station to the coastal area of the Henoko district in Nago by 2014. The deal also includes the transfer of around 8,000 Marines to Guam from Okinawa.


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