Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda hopes to persuade Okinawans to accept the government’s highly contentious plan to move the Futenma air base elsewhere in the prefecture once the burden of hosting U.S. forces there starts to ease.
Vehement local opposition has stalled the proposed relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa for years, and Washington is growing increasingly impatient over the impasse.
“I think that if we begin implementing measures to mitigate Okinawa’s burden, it will help to create an environment” in which its residents can accept current plans for the Futenma base, Noda said in a Friday interview with The Japan Times and three other media outlets.
Under a bilateral accord, Futenma, frequently referred to locally as “the world’s most dangerous base,” would be moved from the densely populated city of Ginowan to U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab on the Henoko coastal area of Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island.
Although some influential U.S. lawmakers are calling instead for the Futenma operations to be integrated with the U.S. Air Force Kadena base, the prime minister rejected the idea.
“We must ensure that the Futenma facility does not remain stuck (in Ginowan) . . . and that means relocating it to Henoko is the only possible solution — as previously decided by the governments of Japan and the United States,” he said.
Still, Tokyo and Washington agreed last month to begin the process of moving 9,000 U.S. Marines out of the prefecture and returning five American military bases and facilities to Okinawa ahead of Futenma’s relocation, possibly a tacit acknowledgment that the base is unlikely to leave Ginowan anytime soon.
The Futenma relocation, however, is just one of many critical issues Noda is grappling with.
Topping his to-do list is his even more contentious goal of gaining Diet passage of a bill to double the sales tax to 10 percent by 2015, a plan strongly opposed by key members of his ruling Democratic Party of Japan.
They include party heavyweight and former leader Ichiro Ozawa, who has hinted he may even encourage his loyalists to vote down the bill in the Lower House. As Ozawa heads the DPJ’s largest faction, Noda can’t afford to take the threat lightly.
But Noda put on a brave face during the interview, expressing confidence that DPJ lawmakers would not betray him. He also indicated his willingness to meet with Ozawa in person, to seek his support over hiking the levy.
“We have been discussing the issue for a long time . . . and I am confident that all party members will follow the executive’s decision” to pursue a tax rise, Noda said.
On the hot-button Senkaku Islands issue, Noda said his administration would consider purchasing three of the islets, whose titles are currently held by a Saitama businessman, to further demonstrate they remain under Japanese sovereignty.
The uninhabited Senkakus are under Okinawa jurisdiction but are also claimed by China and Taiwan, and are thus an endless source of diplomatic friction and tension in the East China Sea.
“The government will consider all means available to maintain and manage the Senkaku Islands in a peaceful and effective manner,” Noda said.
Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s outspoken and ultranationalistic governor, recently declared the metropolitan government’s intention to buy the three islets. Donations have poured in since it launched a fundraising drive, and totaled about ¥470 million as of noon Friday.
Foreign policy experts have strongly cautioned against going through the act of purchasing the islets, arguing it would risk provoking China and fracturing already tense bilateral relations.
Noda appeared to dismiss their concerns, however.
“It’s as clear as day that the Senkaku Islands are part of Japanese territory, both historically and according to international law,” he said. “Japan has control over them and nothing has fundamentally changed.”
No change: Nago mayor
The mayor of Nago said the situation regarding U.S. military bases in Okinawa hasn’t changed in the 40 years since the prefecture reverted to Japanese control.
“The U.S. bases have actually been reinforced and the suggestion that they have been reduced is hard to grasp,” Mayor Susumu Inamine said at a news conference ahead of the 40th anniversary of the reversion May 15.
“This has not changed for 40 years and I just can’t say ‘all’s well’ ” in Okinawa because of the anniversary, he said.
Income levels in the prefecture still remain well below the national average, and are “far from what was expected” around the time of the reversion, he said, adding, “The people and local governments of Okinawa must do their utmost to wean themselves from central government subsidies.”
As for the contentious plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from crowded Ginowan farther north to Henoko, a coastal area in Nago, Inamine said his city “must make efforts to convey residents’ opposition not only to the central government, but also to the Japanese people.”