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Abe can expect little sympathy from nominal allies during Okinawa visit

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Okinawa for a meeting Saturday with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and other local politicians, he’ll be sitting down mostly with fellow Liberal Democratic Party members or those who won with LDP support.

Unfortunately for Abe, they all strongly oppose the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko in the northern part of the main island, a policy dear to the prime minister and the mainstream of his party.

Under the circumstances, little or no progress is expected from Abe’s visit. Okinawans remain angry over the deployment last fall of tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys to Futenma, and political resistance has stiffened as local politicians, officials and antibase activists take heart from growing opposition in Washington to the Henoko move.

During questioning Wednesday by the Lower House, Abe said he would continue to follow the 2006 accord between the U.S. and Japan calling for the relocation to Henoko. The pact was signed a few months before Abe become prime minister the first time.

“As to the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, including the Futenma relocation, we’ll work to reduce Okinawa’s burden while maintaining a deterrence ability and following the current agreement,” Abe said, even as he also promised to listen to Okinawan concerns.

But Abe’s assurances fell on deaf ears in the base-burdened prefecture. The Okinawa Times newspaper accused him of simply parroting, word for word, what his predecessors have been saying for years.

“I don’t think Abe’s attitude will change, even if he sees Futenma 10 times, because he only displays an attitude of seeing and knowing everything,” said Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, who won a fourth term last year. He had the support of the LDP and New Komeito despite his opposition to relocating Futenma within Okinawa.

That, in a nutshell, is Abe’s problem in Okinawa.

From Nakaima to the prefectural chapter of the LDP, which includes five Diet members, to most heads of Okinawa’s 41 towns and villages, many of whom won with local LDP support, there is virtually unanimous opposition, at least officially, to building a replacement base for Futenma in the prefecture.

The strength of the opposition varies among LDP members, though, and there has traditionally been a carrot-and-stick approach to Tokyo-Okinawa relations.

The central government funds local LDP-supported projects in exchange for cooperation, tacit or otherwise, on the U.S. bases. But although Tokyo keeps funding Okinawa in the hope of completing the Futenma relocation, local opposition remains unchanged.

Earlier this week, the Cabinet approved a ¥300 billion fiscal 2013 budget proposal for Okinawa, a slight increase over fiscal 2012. This includes money for construction of a second runway at Naha International Airport. The Cabinet also agreed to build the runway in five years, as sought by Okinawans, instead of seven years, which was the original proposal.

Construction is set to begin next January, and the total cost is expected to be around ¥198 billion.

Specter of terrorism?

Kyodo

Shozaburo Jimi, head of Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), said relocating the Futenma military base in Okinawa could prompt separatist movements and lead to guerrilla struggles and acts of terrorism.

“There’s a possibility that (Okinawa) would say it will become an independent state,” Jimi said Wednesday at a regularly scheduled news conference.

“Domestic guerilla (struggles) could occur as a result of separatist movements,” and “terrorist bombings could occur in Tokyo depending on how the government handles” the issue, he warned.

Jimi’s statements apparently represent a call for alleviating the military burden in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan.

The central government is considering applying for land reclamation in the Okinawa coastal area designated as the replacement site for the Futenma airfield before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in February.