New Okinawa chief wants US to rethink Marine base relocation

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands during a meeting at Abe's office in Tokyo Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. Tamaki won the election for governor at the end of last month, becoming the first Amerasian to lead the southwestern Japanese islands. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool)

TOKYO: The new governor of Okinawa said Friday he wants Americans to know that the US and Japanese governments are forcing a relocation of a US Marine base that residents want removed from the southern Japanese island.

Denny Tamaki was elected last month after campaigning for moving the disputed Marine base entirely off the island and reducing the American military presence.

Tamaki, who took office on Oct. 4, held talks in Tokyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday and urged the central government to do more to reduce the burden on Okinawa of hosting US bases and have it shared by the rest of Japan.

Tamaki said the central and Okinawan governments remained divided on the base relocation, and that he wants US involvement in resolving the issue. Currently, Washington’s position is that the dispute should be resolved between Tokyo and Okinawa.

“I want to appeal to America, where the people have a clear sense of democracy, that they should not neglect this base problem,” Tamaki said. “I want them to know that the former and current governors have clearly opposed the current plan, and both have won the confidence of the Okinawan people.”

Tamaki succeeded Takeshi Onaga, who fought against the Henoko plan and died in August of cancer.

At the center of contention is a decades-old plan to relocate the Marine Corps air station from the densely populated area of Futenma in southern Okinawa to less-crowded Henoko on the east coast. Tamaki and many Okinawans want the air station to be moved off the island instead.

Abe replied that he understands that Okinawan people find it unacceptable that their land is still occupied by a heavy US military presence more than 70 years after World War II, and that he will be mindful of their feelings and work to steadily reduce their burden.

Abe and US President Donald Trump have reaffirmed the Henoko plan, calling it “the only solution that avoids continued use” of the Futenma location.

The relocation plan was developed after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl in which three US servicemen were convicted. The case ignited simmering Okinawan opposition to the US bases.

Tamaki told Abe that many Okinawans also want a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, which gives American military personnel certain legal privileges.

Achieving those goals would be difficult because the central government takes precedence over the local government in Japan-US alliance issues.

About half of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact and the majority of their key facilities are on Okinawa. Residents have long complained about base-related noise, pollution and crime.

Tamaki told Abe that he supports the Japan-US security alliance, but that Okinawa should not be the only one sacrificed. “Everyone in Japan should think about it,” he said.

“We will keep asking for dialogue so that the voices of Okinawan people are heard,” Tamaki said.