NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi vowed Sunday to try to meet a call by Okinawa’s governor for “tangible improvements” in reducing the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa Prefecture.
Kawaguchi reiterated the central government’s commitments in a meeting with Keiichi Inamine, the island prefecture’s governor.
The meeting covered other issues, such as Okinawa’s demand to set a 15-year limit on the U.S. military’s use of a planned airport as well as changes to the bilateral agreement on the status of U.S. military personnel.
Her visit came after bickering surfaced last week in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over how to handle Okinawan issues.
The prefecture, about 1,500 km southwest of Tokyo, makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory but accounts for about 75 percent of the land occupied by U.S. forces in Japan. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. troops in Japan are stationed there.
“It is important for consistent progress to be made, and the issue must be dealt with not only as an issue for Okinawa, but for Japan as a whole,” Inamine told Kawaguchi at the prefectural government building.
Kawaguchi said the issue must be dealt with under the framework of relations between Japan and the United States.
“It is important to change international situations in a favorable manner in an effort to reduce the burden on Okinawa,” she said.
Kawaguchi later told a news conference while wrapping up her visit, “We understand the requests by Okinawa for making revisions, but it is important to swiftly respond to individual issues by improving implementation.”
She cited improvements achieved regarding environmental issues related to U.S. military bases, including the U.S. removing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) from the bases.
Kawaguchi said she has been making efforts by taking up base issues during talks with the U.S., and she took up the issue later Sunday during a meeting with Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, U.S. military coordinator of the Okinawa area.
Inamine called for the government to consider amending the 1995 Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which does not require the U.S. military to hand over suspects to Japanese authorities in criminal cases before they are indicted.
Following the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995, Washington agreed to give “sympathetic consideration” to the handover of suspects in serious crimes, such as murder and rape.
Public outcry after the rape case led Tokyo and Washington to agree in 1996 to vacate about 21 percent of U.S. facilities in Okinawa. The return of the land occupied by the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station is the centerpiece of that agreement.
Inamine also urged the government to deal with the issue of placing a 15-year limit on the use of the planned military-civilian airport, which is to replace the Futenma Air Station on Okinawa Island.
The Japanese government has repeatedly said it would take up the 15-year limit in talks with the U.S. It has refused to say whether it endorses the limit, however, and Washington has not agreed to the proposal.
The central government and the Okinawa prefectural government agreed in July on a basic plan to reclaim land from the sea off the Henoko district in the northern Okinawa city of Nago. This site would replace the air station’s current heliport functions.
Specifically, the plan calls for reclaiming land stretching about 2.2 km from the coast to build the airport, which would have a 2,500-meter-long runway. Construction will cost about 330 billion yen.
Meanwhile, at a meeting with mayors of about 30 cities, towns and villages that host U.S. military bases in the prefecture, Kawaguchi introduced newly appointed ambassador to Okinawa Sadaaki Numata, a former ambassador to Pakistan.
Numata, 59, took up the post Jan. 23 and appeared at his first news conference Friday. He expressed his desire to help bridge communication gaps between Okinawan citizens and the U.S., as well as between the governments of the two countries.
The post of ambassador to Okinawa was established in 1997 by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to focus on issues concerning Okinawa, including the heavy U.S. military presence there.
Kawaguchi’s visit comes after Taro Aso, chief of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, apologized Thursday for making remarks that indicated opposition to spending a large sum of money for the planned airport.
Aso apologized to Inamine and former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, who tendered his resignation Wednesday as chairman of the party’s Okinawa Promotion Committee to protest Aso’s remarks. In his apology to Nonaka, Aso said: “I was out of my depth in this area. I am sorry.”
In a Jan. 26 meeting at the party’s local chapter in Naha, Aso said, “The idea of spending 600 billion yen for something that will be demolished 15 years later will not win public understanding.”
Aso indicated that the heliport function of the Futenma Air Station in Ginowan should be integrated into the U.S. Kadena Air Base, also on Okinawa Island, and not into the planned airport.
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