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Editorial: Japan-U.S. talks do little to quell Okinawa's anger

The actions of the Japanese and United States governments have done little to reduce the distance between themselves and Okinawa Prefecture.

On the night of May 25, ahead of the official start of the G-7 Ise Shima Summit the following day, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama held a rushed bilateral meeting.

It was seen as an attempt to put to rest an incident in which a U.S. military contractor in Okinawa was arrested on suspicion of abandoning the body of a local woman, but the content of the talks revealed in a subsequent joint press conference were far from sufficient in quelling the rage of the Okinawan people.

Prime Minister Abe used strong language to convey his resentment over the case, telling the press conference that he "lodged a firm protest" with President Obama and "urged the United States to make sure to take effective and thorough measures to prevent a recurrence, and vigorously and strictly address the situation." Abe added that progress in the realignment of U.S. forces will not be possible "without truly staying together with the feelings of the people in Okinawa."

We agree with these remarks made by the prime minister, but the important issue is whether the people of Okinawa see any sincerity in such statements.

Abe has repeatedly said that he will "stay together with the feelings of the people of Okinawa" and do his "utmost."

But in reality, the Abe administration has been consistently heavy-handed in its approach to Okinawa regarding the construction of a replacement U.S. military base in the Henoko district of Nago, a city in northern Okinawa Prefecture. Abe is said to have told Obama during their meeting that his position remains unchanged that building a new base in Henoko is the only solution to the shutdown of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawan city of Ginowan.

And then to say that it's important to "stay together with the feelings of the people of Okinawa"? There is no way the people of Okinawa will trust such empty words.

Meanwhile, President Obama gave no apology over the death of the Okinawan woman, and instead stopped at expressing his "sincerest condolences and deepest regrets." He offered to cooperate fully with the Japanese authorities' investigations and to make sure that "everything that can be done to prevent such occurrences from happening again are put into place."

As for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which Okinawa is demanding be revised, Abe and Obama confirmed that they would improve how it is implemented as issues arise. There was no talk, however, of amending it. Revising the SOFA would not, in any way, be a fundamental solution. But if it were revised to allow the Japanese authorities to take U.S. military personnel or contractors into custody prior to indictment when they are suspected of having committed crimes while off duty -- without being affected by the discretionary power of the U.S. -- it would surely have the effect of reducing the number of crimes that are committed. Improvements in SOFA implementation that have no binding power are not sufficient.

The press conference, which continued late into the night, was characterized by strong words of criticism and resentment from both Abe and Obama, generating an aura of a sense of crisis felt by both leaders. However, combining that with the paucity of real content in their remarks, it can be viewed as simply a political performance to prevent the case from overshadowing or negatively impacting the G-7 Summit, Obama's visit to Hiroshima, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election set for early June, and the Japanese House of Councillors election slated to take place this summer.

Other topics that were discussed during the bilateral meeting included the global economy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), North Korea's nuclear program, maritime security, and measures concerning refugees.

Japan and the U.S. bear a heavy responsibility toward the rest of the world. But the bilateral alliance is structurally weak enough that one incident could trigger its demise. To strengthen the alliance, stopgap measures are not enough. We must address the fundamental problem of the unfair burden of U.S. military bases on Okinawa.

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