Japan officials believe election win may rekindle base talks
September 15, 2005
NAHA, Okinawa — A plan to realign U.S. forces in Okinawa may have been pulled from limbo by the Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide victory in Sunday’s Diet election, political officials say.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has indicated the size of his LDP’s victory — it captured 296 seats in the 480-seat lower house — surprised even him.
Koizumi had put his job on the line by calling the special election after failing to win some of his own party members’ backing for privatizing Japan’s postal system.
The special election threw into limbo an interim report on realignment, once expected for early September. But Japan’s Defense Agency chief, Yoshinori Ono, said Tuesday that Tokyo now will “make an effort” to agree on an interim plan by November.
“Because we had a one-month vacuum on the realignment talks, we will now put forth our last spurt to negotiate with both the U.S. side and concerned local communities,” Ono told reporters during a Tokyo news conference.
Ono added, “I think it will be necessary for the interim report to indicate the specific names of military installations involved.”
U.S. Forces Japan officials did not respond Tuesday to a Stripes request for comment.
Some Okinawans indicated they saw the election as an opportunity to focus not just on postal reforms but also on the U.S. military base issue. Rejecting the LDP was seen as a way to slow work on a realignment plan.
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine wants all Marines off the island, which hosts more than half the U.S. troops in Japan. The bases cover a fifth of the island and occupy 75 percent of all Japanese land used solely for U.S. bases.
The main opposition party, the Democratic Party, had wanted to remove Japanese troops from Iraq and supported Inamine’s demand about the Marines. But Sunday, it won just 113 seats, down from 175, and its leader resigned.
The LDP kept its ground in Okinawa, retaining four of the prefecture’s seven seats. The most notable exception, perhaps, was Mikio Shimoji’s election. The former LDP member broke rank and ran as a Democratic Party-backed independent. Shimoji has called for abandoning the plan to build a new Marine air station at Henoko in northeast Okinawa, instead moving Marine air assets to Kadena Air Base.
The LDP still backs the Henoko plan despite its progress having been stalled for years.
The prefectural government responded guardedly to Sunday’s election. Yoritaka Hanashiro, governor’s office executive director, said Koizumi’s “strong leadership” would win some concession from the U.S. on reducing its military presence on Okinawa.
“Prime Minister Koizumi said earlier that he regards military-related problems on Okinawa as an issue that must be addressed as the entire nation,” Hanashiro said. “We expect him to exert his power in reducing military presence on Okinawa."
Japanese news reports quoting anonymous government sources quickly announced President Bush will visit Koizumi in Tokyo in mid-November for talks sure to include the bases. White House officials said they had no comment on the president’s November travel schedule.
The visit is to take place before Bush attends the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit Nov. 18-19 in Busan, South Korea, Kyodo News reported.