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Kennedy to pay highly anticipated visit to Okinawa

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy arrives in Okinawa Tuesday for a highly anticipated visit that will center on the U.S. military presence and the unpopular relocation of a Marine base within the prefecture.

While scheduled to meet with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, senior local business leaders who support the relocation of Futenma air station to the Henoko district of Nago, and members of the U.S. military and their families, Kennedy is also sure to encounter anti-base demonstrators.

The trip comes about a month and a half after Nakaima caused an uproar by approving a landfill project for the partially offshore Henoko replacement base, and just over three weeks after incumbent Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who strongly opposes the base, won re-election.

Nakaima’s decision to approve the landfill project has been widely condemned in Okinawa. Last month, the prefectural Assembly passed a resolution calling on him to resign for breaking a campaign promise to seek to move the base outside of Okinawa.

Pressure on Nakaima to resign is growing. However, because he’s not expected to run again when his term ends later this year, pro-Henoko supporters in the Okinawan business community and the local Liberal Democratic Party chapter have been searching for his successor for some time.

Nakaima and Kennedy are scheduled to meet Wednesday morning in Naha. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said there would also be opportunities for the ambassador to hear from proponents and critics of the base.

One of the more prominent members of the latter is Inamine. A Nago spokesman said the mayor was expected to attend a reception with Kennedy Wednesday evening in Naha, but that no formal meeting between them was currently planned. Despite Nakaima’s approval of the landfill project, Inamine has promised to use his authority as mayor to block specific permits needed to actually build it, raising the possibility of further delays.

The expectation that Futenma will close in five years, as Nakaima has demanded, is likely to be the most contentious question the ambassador will face.