NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki stepped up his conflict with the central government Saturday over plans for a U.S. military base transfer within the island prefecture, rejecting calls for understanding as the government resumed construction work.
Tamaki, who won September’s gubernatorial election on an anti-base transfer platform, met with Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya Saturday morning at the prefectural government office. The governor has been urging the state to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside the prefecture, where the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan are located.
“I was elected by pledging to oppose the relocation to Henoko. The will of the people will not waver,” Tamaki told Iwaya.
Japan and the United States have agreed to relocate the base to the coastal area of Henoko, in Nago, from a densely populated residential area of Ginowan. Many local residents are opposed to the relocation, which is based on a 1996 bilateral agreement with the United States, due to safety concerns.
The central government continues to put priority on “removing the dangers of the Futenma air station … and realizing the return of the land (it occupies),” said Iwaya, who was visiting Okinawa for the first time since assuming office last month.
The meeting took place amid growing tensions following a decision late last month by the land minister to override Okinawa’s withdrawal of approval for landfill work to build a replacement facility off Nago.
The central government resumed the landfill work earlier this month, based on the land minister’s decision that cited concerns that Okinawa’s move would affect Japan-U.S. relations.
Okinawa is considering requesting a review of the minister’s decision by a third-party panel for resolving conflicts between the national and local governments, while also preparing to hold a prefectural referendum next year on the relocation plan.
The prefectural government is making final arrangements to hold a referendum in February on the controversial relocation of the base, municipal sources have said.
Tamaki is seeking to reaffirm a mandate to step up pressure on the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the issue.
An ordinance passed by the prefectural assembly in October requires a referendum be held by April 30, and Tamaki will decide the exact date, the sources said Friday.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government hopes to conduct the referendum in all 41 cities, towns and villages. But some, including the city of Ginowan, have expressed concern about a referendum that asks residents to choose from only two options — either for or against the current, specific Futenma relocation plan.
The Abe administration and the Okinawa Prefectural Government have been at odds over the relocation plan for years.
Tamaki beat former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, who was backed by the ruling bloc led by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, in the election held after the death in August of incumbent Gov. Takeshi Onaga, a staunch opponent of the base relocation plan.
Okinawa retracted the approval given by Onaga’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, for landfill work to build a replacement facility off Nago to accommodate the functions of Futenma. But the central government resumed landfill work in early November after land minister Keiichi Ishii authorized the resumption on the grounds that the retraction was unreasonable and would hurt the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita and Deputy Okinawa Gov. Kiichiro Jahana met in Tokyo on Friday to discuss the relocation issue, kicking off dialogue intended to narrow differences between the central and local governments.
Tamaki plans to travel to the United States in the coming week to raise awareness about the issue, as he sees the need for the American side to get involved in finding an acceptable solution.
Tamaki has said he does not deny the importance of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and is not calling for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. military bases from Okinawa.
But the former Diet member takes the view that Okinawa’s base-hosting burden should be reduced.