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NAHA, Okinawa — Despite criticism from Okinawa officials, Japan’s new defense minister said Saturday that Tokyo will go forward with a plan to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a new facility on Camp Schwab.

Defense Minister Masahiko Komura’s first visit to Okinawa since assuming office last month included visits with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro.

Talks between Tokyo and Okinawa have stalled over the location of runways planned for the new airport.

At the center of the dispute is whether the national government should proceed with an environmental study of the waters off Camp Schwab before an agreement is reached on exactly where to place the runways.

The survey began in May.

Komura acknowledged the gap. “The difference may not be that wide,” he told reporters following a half-hour meeting with Nakaima. “But I would not say that finding a common ground is easy.”

However, he said Tokyo is committed to building new runways as planned. The V-shaped configuration would start on the lower part of Camp Schwab, on the Henoko peninsula and stretch out onto reclaimed land in Oura Bay.

Komura said Tokyo is willing to consider adjusting the plan — if the environmental assessment deems it necessary.

“However, we believe that the plan we have now is the best one,” he said.

Komura also visited Nago, where Camp Schwab is located. He met with Shimabukuro, who has accepted the transfer of Marine air operations to the rural area of his city on Okinawa’s northeast coast, but objects to the placement of the airfield’s runways.

Shimabukuro wants the runways to be placed farther offshore.

Citing noise issues, he suggests the runways be built away from the small communities that hug the coast.

Nakaima said Tokyo should pay heed to the voices of local communities.

“It is very regrettable that Tokyo government began the assessment before we came to an agreement on the location,” he said in a separate news conference after the meeting. “Without reaching an agreement on this, it is obvious we’ll be right back where we started,” he said.

Plans to close MCAS Futenma have been on the books since 1996, when the U.S. and Japan signed an agreement to reduce the footprint of U.S. bases on Okinawa. However, a plan to build an air station some two miles offshore, with a causeway connecting it to Camp Schwab, was scrapped after protesters successfully interfered with an environmental survey.

In May 2006 the United States and Japan agreed to a major realignment of U.S. troops in Japan, part of which called for moving Marine air operations to Camp Schwab. Replacing MCAS Futenma was called the linchpin of a plan to move some 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam by 2014.

Stars and Stripes reporter David Allen contributed to this report.

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