Maehara still has Futenma, JAL, road toll vows to contend with

by Takahiro Fukada

Former Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa should go before a Diet ethics committee to give a detailed explanation about his political funds scandal, land minister Seiji Maehara said late Tuesday.

“Since I remember that he himself has been positive toward attending the political ethics committee and fully explaining (the scandal), I think he should do so and confidently make his own assertion,” Maehara told reporters.

Maehara has distanced himself from Ozawa, who last week quit his DPJ post but is still considered the ruling party kingpin.

Maehara, the land, infrastructure, transport and tourism minister and also state minister in charge of Okinawa-related affairs, said the government should follow through with the Japan-U.S. agreement to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa and he vowed to strive to acquire local acceptance of the plan.

“It will be important (for the government) to steadily proceed with the Japan-U.S. agreement by asking the people of Okinawa to clearly understand that (the plan) will ultimately reduce their burden,” he said.

Maehara apologized that the Yukio Hatoyama administration, which stepped down last week, although he kept his portfolio, could not deliver on the DPJ’s campaign promise to relocate the U.S. base either outside the prefecture or abroad.

A task force of Cabinet ministers should be set up to study how to ease Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. bases, he said, adding the details would be decided by new Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

On the DPJ government promise to make some expressways toll-free, Maehara indicated this may not apply to turnpikes in and around major cities. Tolls on the Metropolitan Expressway in the Tokyo area and the Hanshin Expressway in around Osaka will remain in place because scrapping them would only worsen traffic, he said.

“If that’s the case, we would need to consider charging tolls on other expressways adjacent to major cities because of the possibility that they will get congested if they become toll-free,” Maehara said.

The government plans to make some expressways toll-free on a trial basis late this month.

As land minister under Hatoyama, Maehara came up with bold policies, particularly pertaining to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, which he wants to become a 24-hour international hub.

Maehara also faced tough issues, including the bankruptcy of Japan Airlines. Noting that JAL is undergoing rehabilitation, he vowed to help the carrier reach “cruising altitude” again.

“JAL’s reconstruction has so far been going smooth,” Maehara said Wednesday in an interview with news organizations.

JAL’s presence is crucial for local economies and it is important that the airline survive, he said.

“It is also certainly important for several healthy (airlines) to compete with each other on domestic routes,” Maehara said.

“Now that the fire has been put out and (the airline) is heading toward revitalization, it will be a major goal of mine in my second term to proceed with this (process) and bring it to takeoff,” Maehara said.