National / Politics | CABINET INTERVIEW

Okinawa affairs minister says Futenma, U.S. military issues outside her mandate

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

In the Oct. 7 Cabinet reshuffle, Aiko Shimajiri, an Upper House lawmaker elected from the prefecture, was tasked with the key portfolio of minister in charge of Okinawa issues. But in a Wednesday interview, she avoided discussing the top issue facing Tokyo and Okinawa: the controversial relocation of a U.S. base.

During an interview with The Japan Times and other media outlets, the minister avoided discussing the controversial plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from central Okinawa to the northern part of the prefecture.

“I’m supposed to fulfill my duties as a minister in charge of economic promotion of Okinawa,” Shimajiri said, indicating the political battle over the relocation plan was outside of her mandate.

Shimajiri also said the relocation issue will be handled mainly by the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, not by her.

However, she said, she would “surely keep watching the issue.”

The central government is now trying to restart the long-stalled project to relocate the Futenma base from the residential neighborhood of Ginowan in central Okinawa to the sparsely populated Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture’s north.

However, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga has pledged to block the relocation plan, saying the U.S. base, which has stoked safety concerns, should be relocated somewhere outside the prefecture.

Now, after Onaga’s revocation of an earlier permit for landfill work necessary to build the replacement base in Henoko, a lengthy court battle between Okinawa and the central government is expected to ensue.

Despite the animosity, Shimajiri insisted the central government would not link its budget allocation policy to how the Okinawan Prefectural Government deals with the quarrel over Futenma.

“The base issue won’t be linked to the economic promotion issue,” she said. “I’d like to dedicate myself to economic promotion.”

Many observers, however, have voiced doubts about Tokyo’s vow to separate the economic issue from the power game over the Futenma transfer.

On Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga invited local community leaders from the Henoko area to the prime minister’s office in Tokyo, telling them the central government would bypass the Nago city government — which has opposed the Futenma relocation project — and directly provide subsidies to their local communities.

The central government is expected to provide about ¥30 million in total to the local communities. Okinawa media outlets immediately slammed the government’s announcement, saying it was attempting to use the funds to divide local residents.

“In my understanding, our basic idea is to respond to (subsidy) requests from the local people (in Henoko),” Shimajiri said.

During the interview, Shimajiri also stressed Okinawa’s “great potential” for economic growth, given the its birthrate — tops in the nation — and its geographical position close to other Asian countries.

She added that, in particular, she hopes to focus on education and poverty issues involving children in Okinawa.

“I’d like to shed light on areas that have not been sufficiently covered by laws” enacted to promote the Okinawan economy, she said.