Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Okinawa Gov.-elect Keiichi Inamine agreed Tuesday to work closely on issues weighing on the island prefecture, including the regional economy and reorganization of U.S. military bases.
During a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, the two agreed to resume a policy dialogue that has been stalled for nearly a year, with plans to resume talks as early as Dec. 11, one day after Inamine assumes office. Policy discussions on the region’s various issues, including the deadlock over relocating the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, are likely to begin moving forward under the new LDP-backed governor.
In February, incumbent Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota announced his opposition to the central government’s plan to build a sea-based heliport off Nago, about 50 km northeast of the Okinawan capital of Naha, to take over Futenma’s heliport functions. The decision prompted Tokyo into a protracted wait-and-see position.
As an alternative, Inamine has been calling for construction of an airport in the northern part of the main island to be jointly used by civilian aircraft and U.S. forces.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Inamine reportedly asked Obuchi to give consideration to the people of Okinawa, who have longed for a reduction of the U.S. military presence in their prefecture, which accounts for 75 percent of all land used by American forces in Japan. The prime minister reportedly expressed hope that Inamine will take a decisive step by listening to the people in Okinawa when constructing his policies.
Inamine told reporters after the meeting that his airport proposal is an issue to be discussed later, and that he and Obuchi did not negotiate any details, he added.
Later Tuesday, Inamine met with Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, conveying his intention to “carefully work out requests over complicated base issues, including the Status of Forces Agreement” that stipulates legal and other matters involving U.S. troops in Japan, a Foreign Ministry official said.
Komura vowed to continue consultations with Inamine to “do whatever possible,” including improving the SOFA and steadily implementing the 1996 Japan-U.S. agreement that calls for a 21 percent reduction in the amount of land used by U.S. forces in Okinawa, the official said.
But economic matters seem to be the immediate concern. “People in Okinawa strongly hope for economic recovery more than anything else. So, we’d like to make it our priority for a while,” Inamine told reporters after meeting the prime minister.
Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka told reporters that the government must fully consider the Okinawan people’s feelings when discussing the issue of Futenma, but that the people should come to their own conclusion as well.
“On the issue of relocating the heliport’s functions, we hope that people in Okinawa will thoroughly discuss the issue, and we would like to discuss the issue after listening to their opinions through the new governor,” Nonaka said. “We plan to deal with the issue carefully.”
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