Okada’s inconclusive visit irks Okinawans

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo News

NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — Following a weekend visit to Okinawa by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada that succeeded in upsetting local residents, it remains far from clear how the central government will settle the thorny issue of where to relocate Futenma air base.

While Okada was desperate to gain understanding of the difficulties he faces in trying to review the Japan-U.S. accord that keeps the base within the prefecture, he did not endear himself to residents who attended a meeting Saturday to exchange opinions.

“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 in Henoko, said after attending the one-hour gathering.

The event was held in the city of Nago, where Futenma’s helicopter operations are to be relocated from the city of Ginowan under the Japan-U.S. accord reached in 2006.

The meeting was arranged by a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker because Okada wanted to listen to “each citizen’s voice” and not just those of local leaders. About 100 people showed up.

The city of Nago agreed a decade ago to accept Futenma’s operations, but the launch of the DPJ-led government in September raised hopes among people in Okinawa that the central government might get the facility moved out of the prefecture altogether.

That was what the DPJ advocated before winning last summer’s general election, but Okada started off the meeting with Nago residents by saying the DPJ’s election manifesto did not specifically promise that Futenma’s operations would be relocated outside the prefecture, although it did mention re-examining the realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan.

He went on to say how tough the situation is, noting that the U.S. has consistently urged Japan to abide by the 2006 accord. He also said that resolving the issue by the end of this month no longer appears feasible, and referred to the threat by the Social Democratic Party to leave the ruling coalition if the government decides to abide by the existing accord.

“I came here with hope and expectations, but now I’m dismayed,” said Nishikawa.

“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 even gave the same answer to other questions,” he said.

Others 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 citizens’ 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 members of the ruling DPJ.

Yoshitami Oshiro, a 69-year-old member of the Nago Municipal Assembly, criticized Okada for “mostly making excuses” during the meeting.

“I wonder what he came for,” Oshiro said.

Denny Tamaki, the DPJ lawmaker who arranged the meeting, stressed the significance of having Okada hear directly from Okinawa citizens but admitted he didn’t know how the minister would reflect their opinions in discussions with other Cabinet ministers and the U.S.

The meeting wasn’t the only event at which Okada was criticized.

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

“The minister was quite irritated . . . because what I said was different than his idea. I felt as if I was accused,” he said. “I also got the impression that the minister is being cornered.”

Okada made no attempt to conceal his discomfort at a news conference in Naha Saturday 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 adhere to 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 foreign minister, I must break the stalemate,” he said, without elaborating.

He also hinted to a local newspaper that he will drop the idea of moving Futenma to nearby U.S. Kadena Air Base — an option he has floated as an alternative to the existing Japan-U.S. agreement.

Negotiations with the U.S. over the issue “are reaching their limit,” he was quoted as saying.

While Okada urged Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to come to an early decision on the issue, possibly sticking 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 deal, Tokyo and Washington agreed to transfer Futenma 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.