Negotiations with the United States should not come before those with Okinawa over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Wednesday.
He made the remark a day after sources said the government was considering starting talks soon with Washington over candidate relocation sites, possibly in the first half of March.
This would put discussions among the coalition parties led by the Democratic Party of Japan, along with briefings for local governments, on the back burner.
Hatoyama urged those talks to move ahead quickly.
“If we are going to settle everything by the end of May, the negotiations with and efforts to gain understanding from the people of Okinawa and the United States need to get under way basically at about the same time,” Hatoyama said at the prime minister’s office.
Hatoyama said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, who chairs a government committee studying relocation sites for the Futenma facility, is working on the timing of such negotiations.
On Tuesday, government sources said Japan and the United States may begin examining the feasibility of alternate sites for the Futenma base in Okinawa early next month after the three ruling parties present to the government panel their ideas on where to relocate the facility.
The possibility of building a heliport at the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab in Nago, Okinawa, without having to fill in coastal areas for actual runways — an idea that has been floated around the DPJ — will also be examined by the two countries, the sources said.
The DPJ is also considering transferring some drills from Futenma to Tokuno and Mage islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, which will likewise be assessed by the two countries, according to the sources.
According to the sources, the government is considering having U.S. military personnel take part in the Defense Ministry’s feasibility studies on the relocation plans to be presented soon to the panel by the ruling parties.
The government has determined that its panel on Futenma is unable to conduct an assessment from an operational point of view and that it should be done between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military, the sources said.
The plan is an effort to narrow down possible relocation sites by getting U.S. input, so that the end-of-May deadline can be met, the sources said.
Since taking office last September, Hatoyama has reopened the question of whether the Futenma facility should be moved to a less populated part of Okinawa Island, initially indicating he wanted the base moved elsewhere.
The U.S. has urged Tokyo to abide by the original 2006 accord to relocate the base in Nago, but has also hinted it is open to alternatives.
On Saturday, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima told Hirano at a meeting in Naha that the central government should not go over Okinawa’s head in negotiating the matter with the United States, requesting that it set up venues to discuss the issue with local governments.
On Wednesday, Okinawa assembly members voted unanimously to adopt a written request urging the central government to relocate the Futenma base outside the prefecture.
Representatives from the prefectural assembly will deliver the request to Hatoyama, who is under pressure to reach a conclusion on the relocation by the end of May, and the Cabinet ministers handling the issue.
The statement will put Nakaima in a difficult position, given that he has yet to change his stance, which is to accept Futenma’s relocation within the prefecture to remove the risks posed by the base in Ginowan as soon as possible.
Referring to a crash in 2004 by a U.S. Marine helicopter on a university campus in Ginowan, the Okinawa assembly in the written request describes Futenma as “the most dangerous base in the world.”