Japan Defense Minister Yoshinori Ohno and Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine go over Inamine's prepared statement during a meeting Wednesday in Naha. The two men discussed U.S. base issues.

Japan Defense Minister Yoshinori Ohno and Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine go over Inamine's prepared statement during a meeting Wednesday in Naha. The two men discussed U.S. base issues. (David Allen / S&S)

NAHA, Okinawa — Japan’s defense minister wrapped up a two-day visit to Okinawa on Wednesday, saying the trip has better prepared him for talks with the United States on realigning U.S. forces in Japan.

“One of the main reasons for me to visit Okinawa at this time was to see the reality of the U.S. bases on Okinawa and hear the various opinions of the Okinawan people before we enter full-scale talks on force realignment with the U.S. government,” Defense Minister Yoshinori Ohno said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon in Naha.

He said he hopes the so-called “two-plus-two” talks could be held as soon as next month. The other participants would be Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s nominee for secretary of State.

During a visit with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Wednesday morning, Ohno reiterated that he wholeheartedly supported the planned move of Marine air operations to the rural northeast coast of Okinawa once a new airport is built.

Earlier in the morning he had viewed the sprawling Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma from the top of Kakazu Ridge. In plain view was the charred wall of the administration building of Okinawa International University, where a Marine helicopter crashed Aug. 13, and the heavily developed surrounding neighborhood.

“I was surprised to see how close the air station is to the residential areas,” Ohno told Inamine during a 40-minute visit to the governor’s office in Naha on Wednesday morning. “I also viewed the crash site with disbelief. In such a major disaster, it was a miracle that no civilians were injured. Just the thought of an accident in such surroundings gave me a chill.

“I realized again the need for an early solution to the problem,” he said.

On Tuesday, Ohno visited the Marines’ Camp Schwab to view the site of the planned new Marine air station. Construction on reclaimed land and a reef about 2 miles offshore is forecast to take about 10 years.

He later met with the mayors of 12 northern Okinawan munucupalities, who asked him to push the Henoko project forward. He also acknowledged anti-base activists and environmentalists want the project scrapped.

“I am well aware of opposition,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference. “But I believe that this project is the best way to reduce the burden of Okinawa in the long view. While giving the utmost consideration to protect the natural environment, we will proceed with the project.

“We will make an effort to complete the facility as early as possible.”

Ohno said he also understood Okinawa is “burdened not only by the physical facilities and installations, but by the fear and anxiety people feel because of the activities of the (U.S.) military.

“In bilateral talks on the realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan, reducing the burden of Okinawa, both physically and mentally, will be considered, while keeping in mind the security of Japan and the importance of maintaining a deterrence power,” the Japanese defense official said.

Inamine presented Ohno with written requests to reduce the number of Marines stationed on Okinawa and to move some training conducted by U.S. forces off the island.

Inamine also requested an immediate halt to construction of a $3.8 million Army Special Forces training complex on Camp Hansen in northern Okinawa. “It is located very close to the local community and it is obvious that such training activities there would seriously impact their lives,” he said.

Ohno replied that he would take up the matter with U.S. officials to ease the fears of the people who live in the area.

“Diplomacy and defense are state issues,” Inamine acknowledged. “However, I believe it is important that the voices of Okinawa, where 75 percent of the (U.S.) facilities are located, are heavily considered by the two governments.”

Of Japanese land used solely by U.S. troops, 75 percent is in Okinawa, where U.S. bases cover almost 20 percent of the main island.

On a separate national defense issue, Inamine asked Ohno to protect Okinawan and Japanese interests in the prefecture’s Senkaku Islands, off the coast of Taiwan — an area also claimed by China.

The Japanese press reported recently that the Defense Agency plans to defend the chain of East China Sea islands against any encroachment by China. The plan includes sending about 55,000 troops, planes, warships and submarines to respond to any Chinese move on the islands, according to Kyodo News reports.

When questioned Wednesday concerning the islands, Ohno would divulge no details.

“The new defense outlines include effective and quick responses to various threats, including defense of the islands,” he said.

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