NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Defense Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, a newcomer to defense issues, is quickly being put to the test with the stalled issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa.
Unlike his predecessor, Shigeru Ishiba, who is known as a military policy wonk, Hayashi had taken no defense-linked posts in the government or the Liberal Democratic Party since he became a House of Councilors member in 1995.
The first task facing the 47-year-old businessman-turned-legislator is to make clear his willingness to promote dialogue even over long-standing defense problems. He chose to visit Okinawa only three weeks after he took the post.
“Thank you for coming here early,” Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima told Hayashi during a meeting at the prefectural office in Naha last week.
Nakaima, 69, told Hayashi that he had worked for his father, Yoshiro, in the central government decades ago. The soft-spoken minister replied: “Now it’s my turn. I’ll serve under you,” a comment that drew smiles from the other participants.
Okinawa Vice Gov. Zenki Nakazato expressed Okinawa’s readiness to work with the central government to settle the issue of Futenma’s relocation, telling Hayashi, “We have no intention to be guarded or aggressive against the government.”
The friendly mood in the Hayashi-Nakaima talks was in contrast to a similar meeting in Naha last September between Ishiba’s predecessor, Masahiko Komura, and the Okinawa leaders, during which most participants kept a stiff face. Ishiba did not go to Okinawa as defense minister.
But making progress in the stalled Futenma project does not seem an easy task.
Japan and the United States initially agreed to relocate the Futenma airfield within Okinawa 12 years ago. The two countries renewed the deal in 2006 as part of a bilateral agreement on the reorganization of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
The government and Okinawa remain at odds over where to construct an airfield in Nago to replace the Futenma base in Ginowan.
Okinawa has demanded that the envisioned airfield, with two 1,600-meter runways in a V-pattern that will use part of the coast of the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab, be moved farther offshore, citing concerns among residents over safety and noise.
No Okinawa officials have stated in public exactly how far they want the planned airfield moved, but local political sources said Nakaima envisions by some 90 meters.
“We’re not demanding a big move of the envisioned airfield,” said Akira Uehara, Nakaima’s close aide on U.S. base issues in the prefecture.
Nakaima has said the call for a small change in the airfield’s layout should be regarded as a technical matter.
Uehara, head of the governor’s executive office, said Okinawa is trying to present the issue not as a major change in the relocation plan but as a technical problem to be solved so the Japanese and U.S. governments can accept it more easily than a “change” in the plan.
“We believe what we are requesting is within the range of the 2006 agreement with the United States . . . and would cause no trouble to the United States,” Uehara said.
Uehara also called on the U.S. and the U.S. military to cooperate with the community in Okinawa and come up with new ideas to reduce accident risks and noise.
During the meeting with Nakaima, Hayashi reiterated that it is difficult to meet the request by Okinawa without “reasonable grounds.”
But when asked by a reporter exactly what is not reasonable about Okinawa’s request, Hayashi declined comment in detail.
“We must listen carefully” to what Okinawa leaders will say in future negotiations, including recently launched working-level sessions on the issue, Hayashi said.
But to Hayashi’s annoyance, the Futenma relocation has become a low-profile political issue while Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda scrambles to deal with bread-and-butter matters such as soaring oil and food prices and health-care system reforms.
The central government and the Okinawa municipalities held the first meeting of the working-level session in early August but have yet to decide when to meet again.
Kent Calder, an expert on issues of U.S. military bases outside the U.S., suggested Washington could accept a small change in the plan to build the airfield off Nago if Japan successfully presents the change as a minor modification.
“My guess is that the U.S. places priority on seeing this settled. . . . It prefers to see it settled with some technical modification rather than opening the whole issue up,” said Calder, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
The relocation of Futenma by 2014 is a key item of the 2006 realignment agreement. Under the accord, once the base is open, the U.S. Marine Corps presence will be downsized in Okinawa by 8,000 service members, and all of their dependents. This contingent will be relocated to Guam.