NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Saturday the government will accelerate work on relocating some of the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture in line with a Japan-U.S. agreement.
Machimura indicated at a news conference in Naha that a faster relocation of the Futenma functions can be achieved by speeding up the construction of a relocation site on coral reefs off the city of Nago in Okinawa, after the ongoing environmental assessment is completed.
“It seems hard to shorten the time for the environmental assessment,” he said during a news conference at the end of a trip to Okinawa that started Friday evening.
Machimura made the comments after inspecting the planned relocation site from a hill at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab in Nago.
During a meeting with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine after the inspection, Machimura said, “I heard the construction will take nearly 10 years. But we must study whether there are any ways to shorten the construction period.”
Machimura said the government maintains the view that the relocation has to be accomplished in line with a 1996 bilateral agreement with the United States despite opposition by some locals.
“We have no other option than to proceed with decisions made by the government, the governor, the mayor and local residents,” he said.
The United States agreed in 1996 to return the land occupied by the Futenma base to Japan and relocate the base’s helicopter operations.
Inamine agreed the functions would be relocated to the site off Nago. The government and relevant local municipalities held a series of talks on the issue. But the envisaged handover is awaiting a relocation facility yet to be built due to local opposition.
Machimura also inspected the site of the Aug. 13 crash of a U.S. military helicopter on the campus of Okinawa International University. The CH-53D helicopter had just taken off from the nearby Futenma base in Ginowan.
“I was surprised that damage caused by the crash of a 20-meter-long helicopter was not serious,” Machimura said in front of a building damaged by the crash.
Machimura also praised the aircraft crew’s ability to avoid crashing into a residential area.
However, local media said the minister’s comments showed a lack of sympathy for residents, and he apologized for the comments later in a news conference.
The visit was his first to Okinawa since he was appointed to the post in late September.
The visit came amid growing local expectations that Okinawa’s burden in hosting the bulk of the U.S. military facilities in Japan may be lightened. The Japanese and U.S. governments are conducting ongoing talks on a review of U.S. military functions in Japan.
Okinawa residents have reacted sharply to a series of accidents and crimes related to the U.S. military. The accidents include one in which two U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters clipped each other in midair off the Okinawan coast earlier this month as well as August helicopter crash.
On Friday, the Okinawa police said they arrested a U.S. civilian employed by the military on suspicion of raping a woman in August.
Inamine called on Machimura during their meeting to increase pressure on the United States to make sure similar accidents and crimes do not occur. Machimura said he would do so.
They also discussed the realignment of U.S. bases in Japan, but did not go into details.
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