Tokyo urges Ok­i­nawa leader to back down in US base row


Shinzo Abe’s right-hand man on Sun­day urged the gover­nor of Ok­i­nawa to con­cede in a lin­ger­ing row over the con­struc­tion of a U.S. air base ahead of the Ja­panese prime min­is­ter’s visit to Wash­ing­ton later this month.

The base’s con­struc­tion, first mooted in 1996, has been stymied by lo­cal op­po­si­tion from is­lan­ders who say they bear a dis­pro­por­tion­ate bur­den in host­ing more than half of the 47,000 U.S. ser­vice per­son­nel sta­tioned in Ja­pan.

In the lat­est twist in the twodecade row, Chief Cabi­net Sec­re­tary Yoshi­hide Suga told Gover­nor Takeshi On­aga: “We hope to get your un­der­stand­ing on the plan ... for main­tain­ing the de­ter­rent power of the Ja­pan-U.S. al­liance.”

How­ever, the Ok­i­nawan gover­nor coun­tered that while he un­der­stood the im­por­tance of the al­liance with the U.S., any na­tional se­cu­rity plan must have the Ja­panese peo­ple’s sup­port.

“Ok­i­nawa never vol­un­tar­ily of­fered (land) for bases. I’m con­vinced that it is im­pos­si­ble to con­struct a new base,” On­aga said, re­fer­ring to a plan to re­place the ur­ban Futenma Air Base with one on a ru­ral coast­line at Nago.

Af­ter the meet­ing, he told re­porters: “I will never step back on the base is­sue,” crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment’s top-down ap­proach.

Hun­dreds of anti-base pro­test­ers ral­lied out­side the ho­tel in Ok­i­nawa’s cap­i­tal Naha where the talks took place, hold­ing ban­ners that read “re­scind the re­lo­ca­tion plan!”

The anti-base camp who want the base off Ok­i­nawa struck a blow late last month when On­aga said coral just out­side the per­mit­ted zone at the site on the is­land’s north­east coast had been dam­aged and de­manded a halt to the work.

The cen­tral gov­ern­ment last week mus­cled the gover­nor out of the way, sus­pend­ing his stop-work or­der, and ahead of Abe’s week­long U.S. tour start­ing late this month, which will fo­cus on deep­en­ing trade and mil­i­tary ties.

Abe and On­aga will meet be­fore the U.S. tour, the Mainichi Shin­bun re­ported, cit­ing un­named sources from the Ok­i­nawa gov­ern­ment.

Base Con­struc­tion to Con­tinue

Fish­eries min­is­ter Yoshi­masa Hayashi on Mon­day de­fanged the stop-work or­der with a sus­pen­sion while the is­sue is probed, ef­fec­tively kick­ing it into the long grass.

Suga later told re­porters that Sun­day’s meet­ing “was the first step for talks be­tween the gov­ern­ment and Ok­i­nawa,” but added the gov­ern­ment will con­tinue work on con­struc­tion of the base.

The once-in­de­pen­dent king­dom of Ok­i­nawa was an­nexed by Ja­pan in the 19th cen­tury and was un­der U.S. con­trol from the end of World War II in 1945 un­til 1972.

While most Ja­panese value the pro­tec­tion the U.S. al­liance gives them, es­pe­cially in the con­text of Bei­jing’s grow­ing re­gional as­sertive­ness, a siz­able pro­por­tion of Ok­i­nawans want a dra­matic re­duc­tion in their num­bers. The shut­ter­ing of Futenma and the open­ing of a re­place­ment base at Nago, 50 kilo­me­ters (30 miles) away, was first agreed in 1996 as the U.S. sought to soothe lo­cal anger af­ter the gang-rape of a school­girl by servicemen.

But it has been stymied ever since, with lo­cal pro­test­ers block­ing the move, ar­gu­ing any new base should be built else­where in Ja­pan or abroad.

In 2013 On­aga’s pre­de­ces­sor Hirokazu Nakaima, for­merly a staunch op­po­nent, dropped his ob­jec­tion to the new base af­ter Tokyo promised a hefty an­nual cash in­jec­tion to the lo­cal econ­omy.

Many is­lan­ders saw this as a be­trayal and in Novem­ber kicked him out of of­fice in fa­vor of On­aga.

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