TOKYO – The outspoken governor of Japan's Okinawa island said Friday he will meet with American officials next week to convey the frustration of residents from hosting U.S. military bases on the southern island.
Denny Tamaki said he will meet with officials in Washington and speak at New York University during his Nov. 11-16 trip.
"I hope to speak directly to American citizens and convey my views representing Okinawa and have a discussion about democracy," Tamaki told a packed news conference in Tokyo.
Tamaki took office Oct. 4 after campaigning for the closure of a disputed U.S. base on Okinawa and a reduction of the American military presence there. He said he wanted to visit the U.S. soon after his election so that the voices of voters would be heard.
Tamaki, the first person with an American parent to lead Okinawa, said his roots make him a perfect figure to relay the message to the U.S. public.
At the center of contention is a decades-old plan to move a Marine Corps air station from densely populated Futenma in the southern part of the island to less-crowded Henoko on the east coast.
Many Okinawans say the presence of so many U.S. troops on the island is burdensome and they want the Futenma base moved off the island entirely.
Tamaki, during an earlier visit to Tokyo in mid-October, urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other top officials to stop the Henoko plan and reduce Okinawa's burden. Despite his request and Okinawans' opposition, Abe's government last week resumed construction work at the disputed site at Henoko.
The construction reignited anger on the island, and Tamaki said he is determined to block its completion.
"Okinawa is working hard toward peace building, and based on that perspective we call on the Japanese government and the United States government to look at ways to reduce the burden of the bases and build peace. We call for deepening of their relationship and effort to achieve those goals," Tamaki said.
He said Japan's central government should negotiate with the U.S. in Okinawa's interest. "As the central government is not delivering Okinawans' voice to the U.S. side, it is now my responsibility to convey that directly to the Americans and they have a responsibility to listen to us," Tamaki said.
He has said he supports the Japan-U.S. security alliance, but that Okinawa should not be the only place forced to sacrifice.
Tamaki has also called for a review of the Status of Forces Agreement that gives privileges to the U.S. military, including some immunity from Japanese criminal investigation. Some experts say inequality under the agreement is greater in Japan than in nations that host U.S. forces in Europe.
The relocation of Futenma air station was planned after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl in which three U.S. servicemen were convicted. The case ignited simmering Okinawan opposition to the U.S. bases.
About half of the 50,000 U.S. troops based in Japan under the security pact and most of their key facilities are on Okinawa. Residents have long complained about base-related noise, pollution and crime.
Tamaki, the son of an American serviceman whom he has never seen, said he was bullied as a child because of his lighter skin color and reddish hair. That experience later gave him respect for diversity and his identity, he said.
Coming from a single-parent family that struggled to make ends meet, he is now a governor and is seen as a symbol of "Okinawan dream," he said, holding up the guestbook at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan which he signed with the message "Dreams come true!"
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