OSAKA — Okinawa and central government officials began working-level talks Thursday under a court-mediated settlement deal that calls for both sides to find a solution to the long-stalled issue of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
But while the discussions, which take place nearly 20 years to the day after the U.S. and Japan reached an agreement to return Futenma, are taking place with the agreement of both sides, Okinawa and Tokyo remain far apart on the basic issue of whether to relocate Futenma to Henoko in northern Okinawa or outside the prefecture entirely.
Okinawa continues to demand that operations at Futenma cease within five years, a timetable that is virtually impossible if a new Henoko facility is to be built, which both Tokyo and Washington continue to insist is the sole option.
As the meetings go forward, politics will come increasingly into play, including the results of several elections.
The prefectural assembly elections in June and the Upper House election in summer will be key. Aiko Shimajiri, an Okinawa lawmaker and state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs, will run in the latter poll.
The results could lead to concessions at the meetings by either Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who wants Futenma relocated outside Okinawa, or Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is trying to build the Henoko facility and whose bargaining position would be weakened by the possible loss of Shimajiri.
Friday marks the 20th anniversary of an interim report by U.S. and Japanese officials that said Futenma Air Station would be returned to Japan "within the next five to seven years, after adequate replacement facilities are completed."
Though Henoko as a choice for relocation was not specified in that particular report, it became the choice over the next few years, to the consternation of Okinawans who opposed it.
"The agreement to return Futenma was announced in April 1996, but I am truly regretful that it remains unresolved. In the previous year, after the rape of an Okinawan girl by U.S. service members, a reported 85,000 people gathered to protest," Onaga said in a statement earlier this week.
"At that time, both the U.S. and Japanese governments listened to the voices of the Okinawans and agreed to a full return of the base."
"Yet the condition for the return was to relocate Futenma within the prefecture and the plan progressed without the understanding of prefectural citizens. We want to break the Japanese government's obsession with the idea that 'Henoko is the only option'," he added.
In December 2013, Onaga's predecessor granted permission for a landfill project at Henoko, saying that, in return, Abe promised him Futenma operations would be halted within five years — a deadline American officials have indicated is impossible.
But Onaga repeated the five-year limit Tuesday, saying there were only about three years left.