Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday that his government will compile a timeline for returning land leased to the United States for military use near Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture.
“The government needs to proceed in a responsible way,” Abe told reporters in Fukushima Prefecture.
Under a bilateral deal reached last April, leased areas south of the U.S. Air Force base would be returned to Japan as soon as replacement facilities are provided in Okinawa, or when U.S. Marines stationed in the prefecture are transferred overseas.
A government source said the same day that Tokyo and Washington are considering a plan that would return five such facilities and areas in early April.
Japan apparently wants to accelerate the return of the facilities in the belief that Okinawa will reciprocate by giving it the green light to conduct landfill operations needed to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Base Futenma. But the U.S. side remains reluctant to explicitly state when those sites may be returned, the source said.
On a TV program earlier in the day, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the central government would speed up its planning process for the land return. Okinawa hosts the bulk of American bases and troops stationed in Japan.
As for replacing the Futenma base, Onodera expressed hopes that Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima will decide by January whether to allow landfill work in the Henoko area of Nago to proceed so the replacement facility can be built. Abe’s administration formally submitted the application on Friday.
“Usually, (such a decision) can be made within six to eight months,” Onodera said, urging the governor to make up his mind before the Nago mayoral election in January 2014, which might see him replaced, causing yet another delay.
He meanwhile repeated that the central government will continue explaining to the Okinawan public its plan to lessen the impact of U.S. military facilities in the prefecture. “The reclamation application is the first step toward obtaining Okinawa’s approval” for the Futenma relocation, he said.
Unsurprisingly, Nakaima said Saturday that he will need more time to decide the matter.
“It will take eight to 10 months to review the content (of the application) and decide whether to approve it or not,” Nakaima told reporters in Ginowan after meeting with Ichita Yamamoto, state minister for Okinawa affairs.
The move was not an unusual one in the Futenma saga, which has dragged on for well over a decade. With local resistance as strong as ever, the government’s chances of getting Nakaima’s say-so look pretty bleak.
According to officials, neither Nakaima or Yamamoto brought up the landfill issue during the meeting. Yamamoto told the governor of the government’s plans to devise ways to develop Okinawa’s information technology industry, among other economic revitalization incentives familiar to such talks.
Nakaima, for his part, again voiced his displeasure with the Abe team’s plan to hold a ceremony on April 28 to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which restored Japan’s sovereignty following its defeat in World War II and subsequent occupation. Okinawa, which was not returned to Japan’s jurisdiction until 1972, after decades under U.S. control, despises the day.
“I cannot share the (government’s) thinking. I’d like (it) to be sensitive toward the feelings of Okinawa residents,” he said.
Noting the tremendous difficulties Okinawa had to overcome in the recent past, Yamamoto said he nonetheless plans to attend the government-sponsored ceremony in Tokyo while paying heed to the sentiments of Okinawans.
Earlier Saturday, Yamamoto held discussions with Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine and other local government leaders in northern Okinawa.
At the meeting in Nago, Inamine strongly protested the government’s application for land reclamation in the city’s Henoko district.
“The application was made in a way that deceives Okinawa residents. Local people are very angry about the (central government’s) heavy-handed approach,” Inamine said.
Yamamoto promised to relay the mayor’s criticism to the prime minister’s office and to the defense minister.