Abe official visits Okinawa governor, says US Marine base move 'the only option'

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 Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, left, and Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga shake hands before their talks in Naha, Japan, on April 5, 2015.    Yomiuri Shimbun
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, left, and Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga shake hands before their talks in Naha, Japan, on April 5, 2015. Yomiuri Shimbun

Abe official visits Okinawa governor, says US Marine base move 'the only option'

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The Yomiuri Shimbun | .
published: April 07, 2015

TOKYO — Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga adopted a humble posture in front of the press during his talks Sunday with Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, trying to convince him that the central government was taking Okinawa prefecture's situation into consideration.

But Onaga — surrounded by supporters who shared his opposition to the government's plan — gave no sign he intended to back down regarding plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station to the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture.

"We want to ease [Okinawa's] burden, promote economic measures and regain trust," Suga said at the meeting before bowing deeply to Onaga.

Suga mentioned several stimulus measures for the prefecture, including prioritizing construction of a second runway at Naha Airport and encouraging Universal Studios Japan to set up a theme park in the prefecture.

Although Suga presented a gentle face, he also stated clearly that the government would not change its policy on moving the Marine air base, calling it "the only option."

Still, Suga appeared anxious to dispel the notion that he has been frosty toward Okinawa.

Government sources said Suga's trip to the prefecture was in the works for a while. The visit was timed to coincide with a ceremony Saturday marking the handover of the West Futenma Housing Area from the U.S. military to the prefectural government.

The return of the housing area is part of a 2013 Japan-U.S. agreement to return land south of Kadena Air Base and was an opportunity to highlight the government's efforts to reduce Okinawa's burden in hosting U.S. forces.

The government is also looking to the summit meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama scheduled for April 28.

U.S. officials had expressed concern to Tokyo that Onaga's election would throw the Futenma issue back into confusion, sources said. The government "needed to show that Suga, who is in charge of Okinawa base issues, can communicate with Onaga," a government source said.

Since Onaga, who opposes the relocation to Henoko, took office in December, Suga has adopted a harsh attitude toward the prefectural government. The gulf between the two men apparently cannot be bridged easily.

After Onaga ordered the relocation work to be halted on March 23, Suga told a news conference: "At this final stage, that is extremely regrettable. We will steadily and calmly proceed with the work."

Suga used the Japanese words "shuku shuku," which generally mean "calmly and discreetly" but are used in political discourse to mean "to proceed steadily as planned."

At the meeting Sunday, Onaga called Suga's choice of words "condescending."

"It made me think of the attitude of High Commissioner Caraway," Onaga said, referring to Paul Caraway, the U.S. official who administered Okinawa in the 1960s and whose name is associated to this day with heavy-handed governance in the prefecture.

The meeting between Suga and Onaga was realized, but it will not stop confrontation between the central government and Okinawa prefecture, which is trying to stop the relocation plan.

A contentious permit that allows rock reef off the coast of Henoko to be destroyed expires in March 2017, after which the government would need a new permit from the prefectural government.

Some in the government think the administration can resolve the impasse with administrative subrogation or other methods, but a source in the prime minister's Office said the administration wants to avoid appearing coercive, so it will continue efforts to civilly convince the prefectural government.