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Editorial: 25 yrs after Futenma base pact, is Japan gov't ignoring Okinawa's plight?

It's now been 25 years since the Japanese and American governments agreed to return land in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan occupied by U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

    The agreement originally maintained that the return would take within five to seven years to be completed in full, but it still has not been realized. Both governments should seriously accept the responsibility they have in not fulfilling this promise over a quarter of a century.

    The reason the return hasn't been achieved is that it rests on a condition that the base be moved to another site prepared in the prefecture.

    Initially, the replacement facility was envisaged as an offshore helipad. But plans expanded to the current ones, which include large-scale land reclamation on the Henoko coast in the city of Nago, two runways, and a military port.

    The people of Okinawa Prefecture have expressed their opposition to the base's relocation to Henoko through gubernatorial and national elections. In a 2019 prefectural referendum, 72% voted against land reclamation for the project.

    But the government of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began land reclamation work just ahead of the referendum. The Abe administration's chief Cabinet secretary, who went ahead with the plans as if they were a foregone conclusion and in doing so disregarded the will of the local people, is none other than current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

    But the discovery of weak soil in the marine territory set for land reclamation has forced a change in plans. The target timeframe for relocating the base has slipped from fiscal 2022 to the 2030s, and construction costs will swell 2.7 times their initially planned amounts to roughly 930 billion yen (about $8.5 billion).

    The U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report that chances for the facility to be completed are slim.

    The original aim behind the agreement was to reduce the burden on Okinawa created by the bases.

    In a move symbolic of this aim, then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto demanded the U.S. government return the land taken by the Futenma base, said to be the most dangerous base in the world for its location in an urban area. Behind his actions were heightened anti-base feelings fueled by the sexual assault of a minor by U.S. servicemen in the prefecture.

    The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of the past had among its ranks politicians who were considerate of the excessively heavy burdens and painful history Okinawa suffered, and sought passionately to alleviate the prefecture of them. But where now is the will to help Okinawa and work toward solving these problems?

    The administration of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan also bears a heavy responsibility for initially taking the position that "at least the base should be moved off the prefecture," before then ending the uncertainty by regressing to a plan to transfer the base within the prefecture to Henoko.

    Prime Minister Suga is expected to visit the United States this week, and hold face-to-face talks with U.S. President Joe Biden. We want to see Suga show with his actions the commitment he proclaimed in the Diet to "keep the feelings of Okinawa in our thoughts."

    Construction with no end-date in sight can't be allowed to persist indefinitely. The Japanese government should return to the original point of the agreement -- to remove the threat of danger presented by the Futenma base -- and communicate assertively with the United States.

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