NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga failed to bridge their differences over the relocation plan for a contentious U.S. air base Sunday in Naha as the standoff between the central and Okinawa governments continued to roil the prefecture.
The talks are the first between Suga, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-hand man, and Onaga since he became governor in December with a pledge to block the plan to build a replacement facility for the base in a coastal area of Nago. The base is currently in the city of Ginowan.
At the meeting, which was partly open to reporters, Suga repeated the central government’s position that the relocation plan is the “only solution” when considering several factors, including Japan’s defense alliance with the United States and the need to alleviate the risk of accidents posed by the existing base.
But Onaga stuck to his guns, saying he was “convinced that the new base in Henoko can never be built.”
“You say we should shoulder (the burden of the base ) because (Futenma) is the most dangerous (one) in the world and its risks need to be removed, all the while causing the people of this prefecture great pain. Just saying that itself shows the decadence of politics in Japan.”
Suga, who doubles as minister in charge of base burden issues in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, said he hopes to regain the trust of the Okinawa residents by working with the prefectural government, while reducing their hosting duties one step at a time.
In the meantime, Onaga again requested a meeting with Abe, who has snubbed the governor during his many visits to Tokyo since taking the post.
After the roughly one-hour meeting at a hotel in the prefectural capital, Suga tried to cast it in a positive light, telling reporters the occasion marked the “first step” in advancing consultations between the central and prefectural governments.
He also indicated his willingness to consider arranging a meeting between Abe and Onaga, saying he would proceed with the idea while listening to Okinawa’s views.
Onaga told reporters he will not backtrack on the base issue and will continue to engaging the central government on the issue.
“I want them to stop the relocation to Henoko and engage in dialogue.”
The plan to move Futenma to the less populated Henoko district in Nago is part of a broader realignment of the American military presence in Okinawa, which hosts 74 percent of the total acreage of U.S. military facilities in the country.
Tension rose last month when Onaga, who in November’s election defeated the governor who gave the go-ahead to the base relocation plan, ordered the local office of the Defense Ministry to stop undersea preparations for land reclamation work at the relocation site.
The order has since been suspended by fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, allowing the Okinawa Defense Bureau to continue its work but leaving open the possibility that the central and local governments may eventually contest the matter in court.
Before the talks on Sunday, Suga foresaw difficulties ahead, telling reporters Thursday in Tokyo. “I don’t think a single round of talks will solve the problem,” Suga said.