Japan’s defence chief Inada seeks support from Okinawa governor over US base relocation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 5:18pm

Defence Minister Tomomi Inada on Saturday sought support from Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga over a plan to relocate a US air base within the southern island prefecture, even as the dispute between Tokyo and Okinawa over the issue is set to be contested at 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 US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is scheduled to be relocated despite intense opposition from Onaga and many local people.

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

In the upcoming trial following the high court ruling issued September 16, 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” along with the trial.

Onaga told Inada that he wants the central government to “sincerely” work to reduce the burden that Okinawa bears in hosting US troops, touching on the Futenma relocation issue and the crash of the US 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 deal agreed between Japan and the United States in 1996, the Futenma base is expected to be transferred from a crowded 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 of the Japan-US alliance.

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

Onaga told reporters after the meeting, “We remained apart on the [Futenma] issue.”

Prior to the talks with Onaga, Inada met Major General Charles Chiarotti, deputy commander of the US Forces Japan, in Nago to ask for thorough investigation into the cause of the fighter jet crash and effective steps to prevent such 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 US Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, crashed around 1.55pm. Thursday about 150km east of Cape Hedo at the north end of Okinawa. The pilot was picked up by a US Air Force rescue aircraft.

The US Marine Corps announced on 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 of 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 US military in the north of the main island of Okinawa.