U.S. Base’s Move May Hinge on Okinawa Growth Plan

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OSAKA—With U.S. officials pressing Japan to make major progress on the long-stalled relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his new defense minister will have their work cut out getting locals to accept the move.

Most Okinawans want the base gone from the prefecture and have long opposed the government's plan. Changing their minds may depend on a separate series of negotiations on the central government's new 10-year plan for Okinawa's economic development, the fifth such plan since Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972 after 27 years under U.S. administrative control. The current plan expires March 31.

Starting with the new 10-year plan, the prefecture hopes to secure permission and funds from Noda's government to turn Okinawa into a major international cargo hub. To do so Okinawa wants to construct a parallel runway at Naha Airport. The 14.2 million passengers in 2010, make Naha it the fifth-busiest airport in Japan. But it appears difficult to increase its capacity, especially by low-cost airlines to nearby Asian destinations, because the Self-Defense Forces also use its single runway.

Late last year, Okinawa's Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima received indications from the central government that some sections were resisting Okinawa's demand for far greater autonomy over its uses national taxpayer money. He views the next 10-year plan as a litmus test to determine how committed the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, are about decentralization and regionalization.