Okada’s Futenma-Kadena merger gambit fizzles

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo News

NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada may have wanted a breakthrough on the thorny issue of where to relocate the Futenma airfield in Okinawa when he revived in late October the previously rejected idea of incorporating it into the nearby Kadena air base.

But consolidating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with Kadena is not gaining traction, thanks to strong local resistance that was on prominent display during Okada’s recent two-day visit to Okinawa.

“I wouldn’t say that there’s no possibility at all, but we don’t know whether it would take 10 years or 20 years to put the plan together. It’s that difficult,” Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima told reporters after meeting with Okada on Sunday.

At a briefing Monday, Okada said little when asked about “the fruits” of his first visit to the prefecture since assuming his post in September.

“There was a limited amount of time, but I was able to hear from the heads of the local governments concerned and was able to understand the reality more,” Okada said, without elaborating.

The Futenma relocation is weighing heavily on the new administration, which is caught between U.S. pressure to swiftly abide by the bilateral accord already reached and the Democratic Party of Japan’s stance on the issue before it came to power.

Under the 2006 Japan-U.S. accord that took years to hammer out, the flight operations at the Futenma base in downtown Ginowan are to be moved to an airfield to be built in a less densely populated area in Nago in northern Okinawa by 2014. The plan involves the construction of two runways on landfill near the coast at Camp Schwab.

Okada said it is still “too early” to talk about how he views the feasibility of the Kadena merger while indicating just a day earlier that the prospects weren’t very positive.

“The Kadena plan has an advantage in that it would take less time (for the Futenma relocation than the existing plan) because the base already has runways. But the people in Okinawa, especially those close to (Kadena), are strongly opposed,” he said. “I have to walk on an extremely narrow path.”

Kadena Mayor Tokujitsu Miyagi, who has worked in the past to prevent Futenma from being consolidated at Kadena, the largest U.S. air base in East Asia, also bluntly turned down the possibility of a merger during talks with Okada on Monday. Reflecting his awkward position on Okinawa, which was hoping that the DPJ-led government would move the Futenma base out of the prefecture, Okada remained on the defensive throughout his trip and reiterated that the DPJ’s campaign pledges did not specifically refer to Futenma.

“It is not a fact that we promised in our manifesto to relocate Futenma outside the prefecture or outside Japan,” Okada told Nakaima during their talks after the governor referred to growing expectations among people in Okinawa regarding the idea.