The surprise decision by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to hold the main event of next year’s Group of Eight summit in Okinawa apparently reflects the desire of the central government to improve ties with the prefecture under Gov. Keiichi Inamine.
Inamine was elected Okinawa governor in November with the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party, which Obuchi heads, by defeating Masahide Ota, whose relations with Tokyo had been chilled by his campaign to reduce the U.S. military presence in the prefecture.
During a news conference, Inamine said that he was “moved” by the state’s decision to pick Nago as the venue for the meeting of the G8 heads of state. He said Obuchi told him of the decision by telephone around 9:30 a.m. Thursday — shortly before it was officially announced in Tokyo.
“Okinawa is different from mainland Japan in a variety of ways, and (hosting the summit there) will broaden the scope of Japan. It will have a global impact to send a message of peace from Okinawa, which has a different history from the rest of the country,” Inamine said.
Touching on the fact that Okinawa is host to 75 percent of the land occupied by U.S. military facilities in Japan, Inamine said he hopes U.S. President Bill Clinton, when he arrives in Okinawa for the summit, will have an occasion to hold discussions with youths.
According to officials involved in the prefecture’s drive to host the summit, Inamine urged Obuchi’s aides to make a “political decision,” saying that if the central government wants to push ahead with its plan to reorganize U.S. bases in Okinawa, it needs to take measures to promote the local economy in a visible manner, such as holding a major event like the G8 summit.
The government’s attitude toward Okinawa changed dramatically when Inamine replaced Ota in November.
Under Ota’s leadership, the central government’s plan to build a new, sea-based facility in Okinawa to relocate key functions of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station had hit a snag. Relocating the air base is the centerpiece of the Japan-U.S. agreement in 1996 to reorganize the U.S. bases in Okinawa.
Okinawa launched a full-scale campaign to host the G8 summit only late last year.
Security concerns and the fact that Nago — the host city — is about 70 km away from the airport in Naha, the prefectural capital, were seen as disadvantageous to its bid.
An LDP lawmaker said that choosing Okinawa as the main summit venue would “make the prefecture feel heavily indebted” to the government.
The central government apparently hopes the choice will prompt Okinawa to cooperate — as Inamine has indicated he will — with a central government project to build a new facility that will replace Futenma’s functions.
Okinawa police officials meanwhile predicted that thorough preparations will be needed to brush aside security concerns.
The visit by the U.S. president to Okinawa — with the huge presence of the bases and its World War II history of ground battles with the U.S. — may draw a large number of antiwar activists and leftist extremists from the mainland, they said.
Responding to the announcement of the summit venues, the National Police Agency announced that it has set up a summit preparation council to closely communicate with local authorities in Kyushu and Okinawa.
Traffic will be another source of concern.
There are only two major roads that connect Naha and Nago — National Route No. 58 and the Okinawa Expressway.
Because Okinawa does not have a railway network, heavy traffic restrictions during the summit will cause serious disruptions to local residents’ lives, they added.