NAHA, Okinawa — U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy met with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima on Wednesday and said she hopes to maintain the recent momentum toward a new American military footprint on the island.
The ambassador avoided direct mention of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma during the meeting. But her first trip to Okinawa as ambassador this week was widely seen as a show of support for the governor, who in December approved the construction of a new U.S. airfield on the island to replace MCAS Futenma.
Kennedy is popular among the Japanese because of her father, the late President John F. Kennedy, and the visit raised hopes among U.S. base opponents that she may be swayed by their cause. Island newspapers directed editorials to Kennedy that recounted the island’s past under American occupation, and anti-military protests were held near the governor’s office in Naha.
But the U.S. has lauded Nakaima’s approval of the Futenma relocation. Military leaders say the decision will allow progress toward moving aircraft out of an urban area of Okinawa and shifting thousands more Marines to Guam, Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific.
As part of the recent progress on Okinawa, the ambassador said the U.S. and Japan began negotiations this week on reforming the 1950s-era environmental treaty guidelines that govern American forces in the country.
The U.S.-Japan status-of-forces agreement sets rules for American troops in Japan but does not require any U.S. cleanup of pollution when military base land is vacated.
Tokyo and Washington had promised to revisit the environmental rules when Nakaima was weighing whether to approve the Futenma transfer. The changes could allow Okinawa to perform assessments of military base land before it is vacated and returned to local control.
“I think it is very good the environmental negotiations are starting today while we are here,” Kennedy told Nakaima through a translator.
It was not their first meeting, and the two greeted each other warmly before trading signed baseballs. Kennedy also presented Nakaima with a framed copy of a visa request made by her father, who once came to the island for emergency medical care during a congressional trip to the Far East in 1951.
The congressman and future president was treated at an Army hospital on the island.
“They thought he might die, and his life was saved on Okinawa,” said Kennedy, who had the visa request sent from the president’s library in Boston.
The ambassador was also scheduled Wednesday to visit an Okinawa high school and Shuri castle, the seat of power for the bygone Ryukyu Kingdom.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.