TOKYO – Denny Tamaki, the newly elected governor of Okinawa, is the first person with an American parent to lead the southern Japanese island, campaigning on a longtime popular demand to reduce the U.S. military presence there.
Tamaki is planning to visit the U.S. to talk to people and try to gain their understanding about what he sees as Okinawa's shouldering an unfair burden of hosting U.S. troops. At the center of contention is relocating a U.S. air base from densely populated Futenma to less-crowded Henoko on the east coast. Early construction has begun at Henoko, but it's far from finished. The U.S. and Japan's central government support the relocation, and government ministries have rejected Okinawa's legal maneuvers to block the construction.
Tamaki, 59, spoke with The Associated Press on Wednesday. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What is at the root of the problem in Okinawa with the U.S. military bases?
A: How long is it going to be Okinawa? How much longer? When you ask these questions, the answer was that we just don't need any more bases, and that answer was reflected in the election results this time. The people of Okinawa have opposed this new base for more than two decades and so there is a basic mistake in Henoko.
They say Henoko is the only one, Henoko is the only solution. But we think that it is definitely not the case and that they're refusing to think critically. The American side has made multiple proposals under reorganization plans and the Japanese government should consider them. The Japanese government should be relaying ways to put Okinawa at ease and to promote peace in Japan along with the message of the people reflected by my election victory to the American government.
Q: What is your view on Okinawa's history and how that fits in with peace and the base problem?
A: There are things that we Okinawans must speak up because we feel strongly about peace because of Okinawa's history and that is connected to the very core of our hearts. In the Battle of Okinawa, more than 100,000 civilians were killed. Harsh battles were fought and sacrifices were made. The tragedy should never be repeated and we are committed to our responsibility to promote a peaceful environment for our children and grandchildren.
It is the issue not only for Okinawa but for all of Japan to think about. We want a world of harmony not of war, and that's part of the Okinawan identity. Okinawa's call for peace is based on our own sacrifice and I believe that would be a very strong message.
We always have to ask ourselves a question if Japan cannot defend itself without being armed so much. We have to keep asking if we can't defend Japan without it, if we really need it. No U.S. troop on Okinawa means there is a peaceful environment.
Q: Where do you want to take Okinawa's future?
A: Up to now, a black-or-white dichotomy of peace or economic development has been presented in Okinawa elections. Peace means the bases will be gone soon, and people will at last realize their dream of getting out of the postwar situation. Choosing the economy means the bases will stay but because of that, people will get aid money, and that will be given to the people. It has always been about that exclusive choice in elections.
But what I said was that both are important. Aren't both peace and economy important? Without peace, there is no economic development. And if the economy is thriving, it's certainly possible to create conditions that allow for peace. So we are not choosing between economy and peace but we want both.
I have always said, in this new age for Okinawa, we stand for autonomy, co-existence, diversity and acceptance. Okinawa is going to firmly push for these eternal values of democracy. A democratic country like the U.S. will surely listen to such an appeal, especially if I, someone who has an American father, am the one going there to express that.
Q: What is Okinawa's geopolitical significance and its role?
A: Looking at Okinawa's geopolitical position in Asia, Okinawa is in a position to take initiative in promoting friendship and peace among countries in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. We can perhaps host a peace-building conference. I would like to take up the role to promote peace, economic and people exchanges in the region. How about holding a U.S.-China summit on Okinawa? ... Overall, this year there was the summit of the Koreas in April and the U.S.-North Korea summit in June. I think at least we should cherish the ongoing momentum toward peace.
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