NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima agreed to disagree Monday over a long-stalled plan for moving a key U.S. military base elsewhere in Okinawa.
Noda told Nakaima during their talks in the prefecture that Japan and the United States are pushing him to accept the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma because it is the “only viable” option.
The prime minister wants Nakaima to sign off on the Japan-U.S. accord so the oft-maligned base can be moved from crowded Ginowan to the less-populated coastal area of Henoko in Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island.
Noda, visiting Okinawa for the first time since taking office in September, promised that the air base will not remain in its present state and that the central government will take concrete steps to assist Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.
But Nakaima rebuffed the prime minister’s request and repeated that residents want the base removed from the prefecture.
The relocation, if it proceeds, will take a “very long time,” Nakaima told Noda at the outset of the meeting, which was open to the press, and called on the prime minister to “consider relocation outside the prefecture.”
Noda, for his part, said the government is attempting to help Okinawa host the bases while maintaining the deterrent effect presented by the marines stationed in Okinawa.
He also vowed to push for special legislation aimed at stimulating Okinawa’s economy.
His remarks come at a time when Tokyo and Washington are rethinking their 2006 accord on realigning U.S. forces in Japan by delinking the Futenma relocation issue from the transfer of marines in Okinawa to Guam.
After the meeting, the governor said: “I have no intention of changing my mind” in calling for relocation outside Okinawa.
Noda, meanwhile, apologized to Nakaima for the policy flip-flops the central government has committed since his Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009 and the indiscreet comments made by the former chief of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau regarding the base relocation.
Opposition in Okinawa is particularly strong because former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of the DPJ raised hopes that the base would be moved out of the prefecture. The two countries later endorsed the 2006 accord stipulating the present plan for relocating Futenma in Okinawa.
The governor also asked Noda for changes in the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the handling of U.S. service personnel in Japan, to which Noda said discussions would be held among the Japanese and U.S. governments, as well as base-hosting municipalities.
Japan and the United States agreed late last year to change the operational implementation of the agreement to conditionally grant Japan jurisdiction over crimes involving nonmilitary personnel at U.S. bases.
As for his forthcoming trips to Okinawa, Noda said that he plans to revisit Okinawa on May 15, the 40th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion from U.S. control, and during the May meeting of Japanese and Pacific island leaders.
Noda also vowed to push for passage of legislation in support of Okinawa, including special measures to stimulate its economy.
Noda told reporters after the meeting that taking measures to develop Okinawa’s economy and ease its base-hosting difficulties will “lead to creating trust and eventually consent” in the local community.
During the day, Noda also rode a Self-Defense Forces helicopter to view the base in Ginowan and the Henoko relocation site.