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New Defense Minister tackles Futenma

Date Posted: 2008-09-05

An amicable relationship with Okinawa Prefecture’s top leaders has been established by Japan’s new Defense Minister, who has visited the country’s southernmost prefecture only three weeks into his term.

Yoshimasa Hayashi is a seasoned political veteran, but a neophyte in the often tumultuous world of dealing with complex defense issues. Still, Hayashi has wasted no time traveling to Okinawa to confront the contentious Futenma Marine Corps Air Station issue, which has had local and central government officials at odds.

He’s already won points from Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, for making Okinawa a priority. “Thank you for coming here early,” the governor quickly told Hayashi, as he reminded the new defense leader he had served under his father Yoshiro in the central government decades ago. Not one to miss an opportunity, Hayashi fired back “Now it’s my turn. I’ll serve under you,” a soft spoken retort that brought smiles from Okinawa officials.

Okinawa’s been at loggerheads with the central government over plans for constructing an airfield in northern Okinawa to replace Futenma, located in densely populated Ginowan City. The decision to replace Futenma was made a dozen years ago, but plans faltered amidst environmental and economic challenges. A revamped plan locating the airfield and its V-shaped pair of runways at Camp Schwab and extending into Oura Bay was instituted two years ago.

The 69-year-old Okinawa governor has basically supported the plan, but has called for shifting the runways farther into Oura Bay, a move the U.S. military has opposed. The new Defense Minister, a 13-year political veteran in Japan’s House of Councilors, says he’s listening. Okinawa’s Vice Governor, Zenki Nakazato, put Hayashi at ease by telling him “we have no intention to be guarded or aggressive against the government.”

Hayashi, who replaced Shigeru Ishiba as Defense Minister weeks ago, signaled he wants improved relations with Okinawa. Ishiba never visited Okinawa during his tenure as Defense Minister.

Akira Uehara, Nakaima’s top strategist on base issues while serving as head of the governor’s executive office, has told Hayashi “We’re not demanding a big move of the envisioned airfield.” Okinawa leaders are posturing themselves as not opposing the new airfield but rather, seeking technical adjustments to the plan so the U.S. can accept it without perceived ‘change’.

At issue is the exact location of the two runways to be built in a V-configuration, with the legs extending into Oura Bay. While the governor has not publicly stated exactly what changes he wants, all reports indicate he would like to see the runways moved 90 meters farther out to provide a more acceptable safety buffer zone for nearby residents. Hayashi says “we must listen carefully” to Okinawa leaders, but didn’t offer details as to exactly what he considered “reasonable grounds” for changing the plan.

The plan calls for closing Futenma and moving it to Camp Schwab, in Nago City’s jurisdiction, by 2014. Once the shift is made, provisions of a U.S. ~ Japan agreement to downsize the military population on the island and move 8,000 American Marines, plus their dependents, from Okinawa to Guam would begin.

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