• Kyodo

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Defense Minister Tomomi Inada on Saturday sought support from Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga over a plan to relocate a U.S. air base within the island prefecture, even as the dispute between Tokyo and Okinawa over the issue is set to be contested in the Supreme Court.

“Moving the base to the Henoko area is the policy of Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe’s government,” Inada told Onaga in the prefectural capital Naha, referring to the site where the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is scheduled to be relocated despite intense opposition from Onaga and many locals.

Inada’s trip to Okinawa, her first since assuming the defense post in early August, came a day after Onaga appealed a court ruling that backed the relocation plan. A U.S. fighter jet also crashed off Okinawa on Thursday, the latest in a series of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in the prefecture. Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

For her part, Inada said the central government will examine Okinawa’s arguments and make clear its position. But she also said it is “important to exchange opinions.”

Onaga told Inada that he wants the central government to “sincerely” work to reduce the burden that Okinawa bears in hosting U.S. troops, touching on the Futenma relocation issue and the crash of the U.S. Marines AV-8 Harrier jet.

“I want you to understand the actual situation of Okinawa and sincerely work to alleviate the excessive base burden,” he said.

Under the relocation plan, which is based on a 1996 deal reached by Japan and the United States, the Futenma base is expected to be transferred from a residential area in Ginowan to the less-populated Henoko coastal area of Nago.

Onaga and many Okinawans want the base to be relocated outside the prefecture. But the central government has maintained that the plan is “the only solution” to address safety and noise problems at the base without undermining the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Inada told Onaga that the existing relocation plan would “remove the dangers” that will remain unless the Futenma base is moved.

Inada told reporters after the meeting, “We remained apart on the (Futenma) issue.”

Prior to the talks with Onaga, Inada met Maj. Gen. Charles Chiarotti, deputy commander of the U.S. Forces Japan, in Nago to ask for a thorough investigation into the cause of the fighter jet crash and that effective steps are taken to prevent future accidents.

“It would have been a catastrophe if the accident happened in a residential area,” Inada said.

The Harrier jet, after taking off from the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, crashed around 1:55 p.m. Thursday about 150 kilometers east of Cape Hedo at the north end of Okinawa. The pilot was picked up by a U.S. Air Force rescue aircraft.

The U.S. Marine Corps announced Friday the temporary grounding of all AV-8 Harrier jets in Okinawa.

Chiarotti said the operational pause was part of measures to prevent a recurrence of similar accidents and he hopes to respond to the questions submitted by the Japanese government as soon as possible.

Inada also observed from a helicopter the Henoko coastal area and the construction site of helipads for the U.S. military in the north of the main island of Okinawa.

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