Tomomi Inada is set to make her first visit to Okinawa as defense minister on Saturday amid escalating tensions between Tokyo and Naha over the contentious issue of U.S. military bases on the island.
During her two-day visit, Inada is scheduled to meet with Gov. Takeshi Onaga as she tries to reach an understanding over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Nago, in northern Okinawa.
Her trip comes less than a week before the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court is slated to issue a ruling on Sept. 16 on the ongoing legal battle between Tokyo and the Okinawa Prefectural Government over the issue.
Tokyo in July sued the Okinawa government for failing to cooperate on relocating the U.S. military base from the city of Ginowan to the Henoko area of Nago.
Onaga last October revoked the landfill permit issued by Hirokazu Nakaima, his predecessor who was voted out of office in the November 2014 gubernatorial election.
The lawsuit brought the two sides back to court after the High Court in March urged them to drop litigation against each other.
Soon after Inada became defense minister, she expressed an intention to visit Okinawa, saying the issue remains that Futenma is located in the middle of a densely populated area.
Yet it is unlikely that her visit will lead to the easing of an already strained relationship between Tokyo and the prefecture.
Even if Okinawa loses in the latest ruling, the prefectural government is likely to lodge a final appeal within seven days of the ruling being handed down.
Defense ministry sources also say that the prefectural government will “use every means” to prevent construction work off Henoko, but that Tokyo and Okinawa will continue to hold talks in a bid to renew a permit to pulverize underwater rocks and dead coral reefs, which expires in March.
And in a further bid to thwart construction, Onaga also reportedly plans to void a permit to transplant the coral reefs in Henoko to outside the construction site, citing environmental issues.
The Defense Ministry also coordinating plans for Inada to meet the mayors of the villages of Kunigami and Takae, where the Northern Training Area is located.
Riot police and protesters have been clashing in Higashi since the government resumed construction of helipads there.
Helipad construction was part of a 1996 agreement between Tokyo and Washington to return part of the Northern Training Area. The U.S. agreed to return about 4,000 hectares of the area, which is slightly more than half of the entire 7,800-hectare-site, in exchange for the construction of six helipads in the remaining half.
Although construction started almost 10 years ago, so far only two helipads have been built. However, since Tokyo resumed construction it has become a new flash point, with several protesters forcefully removed and reporters from the local Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times newspapers detained.
Despite the protests, Inada earlier this week emphasized that not everybody is against the project and the partial return of the training area would help reduce the burden on Okinawa, which hosts 74 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan.
“Kunigami and Higashi villages said they want the area to be returned so that they can register it as a national park and a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site,” Inada said.
Tokyo and Washington in July redefined details of the civilian component of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement governing the military working relationship of the two nations.
It followed the arrest of Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a former U.S. Marine and military contractor, who was charged with murdering 20-year-old local woman Rina Shimabukuro in April.
Tokyo says it is negotiating with Washington to draft a legally binding document concerning the new rule, but Okinawans call it a cosmetic change and are demanding a total revision of SOFA.
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