Ambassador Caroline Kennedy pledged to work to quickly reduce the impact of U.S. forces in Okinawa, an island that hosts three quarters of its military facilities in Japan and where doctors once saved her father’s life.
On a trip to the island today, Kennedy met with Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who raised hopes in December of an end to years of wrangling by approving the relocation of a U.S. Marine base from the center of a crowded city to a more remote location on the island.
“The United States is committed to working with you and the government of Japan to make that happen as rapidly as possible,” Kennedy said at a reception with local politicians including Nakaima in the prefectural capital of Naha.
Her visit comes as Japan seeks to bolster its military ties with the U.S. at a time when it is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China. Secretary of State John Kerry last week restated to his counterpart Fumio Kishida that the U.S. is committed to upholding its obligation to defend Japanese-administered territory, including in the East China Sea, where China and Japan both claim a chain of islands.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be here as ambassador if it wasn’t for Okinawa,” Kennedy said, referring to the treatment her father, John F. Kennedy, received after he fell ill on a trip to Asia as a congressman.
“He became very ill and was airlifted to Okinawa where our family thought he was going to die. His life was saved when he came to recover on this beautiful island.”
While Kennedy was presented with a bouquet of flowers at an earlier meeting with Nakaima, she was also met by demonstrators protesting the U.S. presence and base relocation. Okinawa remains among the most contentious issues in the bilateral relationship. U.S. envoys have apologized for crimes committed by servicemen and face anger over noise, pollution and accidents tied to the military bases.
Outside Nakaima’s offices this morning, several hundred people demonstrated with banners reading “oppose the U.S. ambassador’s visit” and accusing the U.S. and Japanese governments of “infringements of human rights and damage to the environment caused by prioritizing the U.S. military.” “There are various incidents and accidents, and I would like to ask you to help in reaching a fundamental resolution,” Nakaima told Kennedy. He called for a framework for discussion of the base issues.
Outrage over the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen led to an agreement the following year to try to reduce the burden on the island by shifting Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of the city to a site to be built partly on reclaimed land at Henoko in Nago city. The plan was re-affirmed a decade later.
The mayor of Nago City, who opposes the base relocation, renewed doubts over the plan when he was re-elected last month. Nago City has jurisdiction over the new site.
Kennedy also laid flowers at a memorial to the more than 240,000 people who died in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, before meeting Nakaima and going on to visit a castle and a high school.
The appointment of Kennedy, 56, was welcomed by the Japanese government, helped by her close ties to President Barack Obama and her status as the only living child of former President John F. Kennedy. Thousands lined the streets to cheer the first woman in the post when she traveled by horse-drawn carriage to present her credentials to Emperor Akihito in November.
Since then, she has criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war dead, including 14 World War II military leaders convicted as Class-A criminals, and is seen by many in China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s past aggression.
Last month, Kennedy used Twitter to voice her concern about the “inhumaneness” of dolphin-hunting in Japan. Japanese officials defended the hunt. Anti-base activists say the coast at Henoko, the proposed new base site, is a habitat for dugongs, endangered sea mammals.
“Is it not inhumane to pose a threat to the habitat of the dugongs by destroying their feeding grounds?” the Okinawa-based Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper asked in an English-language editorial published yesterday.
“The people of the prefecture are against” the relocation, said retiree Tomoharu Toyozato, 65, who traveled from a city 25 miles away to join the demonstration in Naha, said. “This would be a crushing of the will of the people. Whatever happens, we say no to Henoko. Most residents want the base moved out of the prefecture.”