Okada, Kitazawa hope to get past contentious base plan

by Masami Ito

Reappointed Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said early Wednesday one of their key tasks in new Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration will be to follow through with Japan’s agreement with Washington to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.

The two ministers, however, added that they both reviewed how the previous Cabinet dealt with the issue and may take different approaches to win over the people of Okinawa to the highly contentious relocation plan.

“The biggest regret is that we could not get the understanding of the Okinawan people,” Okada told reporters after he was sworn in for his second term. “There may have been other ways of dealing with it, but it is a substantially difficult problem.”

After promising the people of Okinawa to move the base out of the prefecture, the administration of Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, spent months reviewing a 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement to relocate Futenma, now in Ginowan, to Camp Schwab’s Henoko coast farther north on Okinawa Island. Hatoyama’s administration quit last week.

But unable to come up with an alternative, the Hatoyama government signed a bilateral accord at the end of May agreeing to move the Futenma base to “the Camp Schwab Henoko-saki (Henoko Cape) area and adjacent waters,” reigniting anger in Okinawa.

Okada stressed the need to gain the acceptance of the people of Okinawa but also noted that if the Futenma base remains in the densely populated city, it would continue to be a source of danger for locals.

“I don’t think the relocation issue is something that the Okinawans would happily accept,” he said.

“But if Okinawa refuses, we cannot move forward, which means the situation will remain the same. This could seriously endanger the lives and safety of the people.”

Other imminent issues for the government are Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the sinking of a South Korean warship by, according to a probe, a North Korean sub, said Okada, who listed as long-term goals nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, curbing global warming and reducing poverty in Africa.

“Looking back over the past eight or nine months, I have undertaken many challenges, but there are many problems that have not produced results,” he said. “In a sense, I have been planting seeds until now, and I feel that I have been given an opportunity for them to bear fruit, to move Japanese diplomacy forward.”

In a separate news conference, Kitazawa said the ruling Democratic Party of Japan should have separated its mid- to long-term goals in the process of keeping its promise to voters to move the Futenma base out of the prefecture, and try to ease the immediate dangers of having an air base in a crowded area first.

The second-term defense minister also said he would work together with other ministers to make sure Self-Defense Forces elements actively engage in United Nations peacekeeping operations and antipiracy measures.