New Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said he doesn’t intend to draft a special bill to bypass the Okinawa governor’s authority and start building a contentious new facility for the U.S. Futenma base.
During a group interview with media outlets Thursday, Tanaka said he will instead work to persuade Okinawans — most of whom fiercely oppose the government’s relocation plan — to kick-start the long-stalled bilateral accord with Washington on moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.
“The Japan-U.S. agreement continues to be the basis for the (Futenma) relocation, and as defense minister I want to deepen the understanding of Okinawa locals,” Tanaka said. The planned relocation “will decrease the burden (of hosting U.S. bases) in Okinawa Prefecture, so both the Japanese and U.S. governments want to move the plan forward as soon as possible.”
Under the bilateral pact, the government agreed to relocate Futenma from the densely populated city of Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area in Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island.
Okinawa residents, however, want the base removed from their prefecture and strong local opposition has held up the plan for years.
At the end of last year, the central government submitted an environmental assessment report to Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, a prerequisite before construction on the facility in Henoko can begin.
But because Nakaima strongly opposes the central government’s plan and has the authority to reject the environmental assessment, ideas have surfaced to fast-track a bill through the Diet to bypass his office.
While Tanaka is stressing continued dialogue with Okinawa, he has already managed to upset locals with comments he made during a recent NHK program.
Interviewed on the show, the new defense chief said he wants to start construction on the Henoko facility by the end of the year — the first time a senior government official has mentioned a time frame for the relocation.
Tanaka’s remarks immediately drew flak from Okinawa and he later retracted his comments, saying, “(The process) is not about setting an exact time frame, goal or deadline.”
The incident sparked criticism that Tanaka is an “amateur” on security issues, a charge that was also leveled at his predecessor, Yasuo Ichikawa.
During the NHK program, Tanaka also confused calls to ease restrictions that prevent Self-Defense Forces troops from using their weapons while on peacekeeping operations with a plan to ease the three principals of Japan’s ban on arms exports.
At Thursday’s group interview, Tanaka mostly responded to questions by reading aloud from documents prepared in advance by the ministry, leaving reporters wondering if his stint as defense minister is destined to go the same way as Ichikawa’s.
The two largest opposition groups, the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, are already planning to target him during the ordinary Diet session that will convene Tuesday.
Tanaka is best known for being the husband of popular former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka.
Ichikawa, his predecessor, came under fire after saying he wasn’t familiar with the details of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen.
Opposition parties subsequently passed a censure motion against Ichikawa in the Upper House, where they hold a majority, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda replaced him in the recent Cabinet reshuffle in a move aimed at appeasing the rival camp.