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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012

CABINET INTERVIEW

Okinawa budget hike not Futenma 'payoff'

Government not bribing locals over relocation plan, Ospreys: Tarutoko


By MASAMI ITO and HIROKO NAKATA
Staff writers

The steep increase in funding to promote Okinawa's economic development in the fiscal 2012 budget had nothing to do with the contentious relocation of the Futenma air base or the deployment MV-22 Ospreys to the facility, according to Shinji Tarutoko, the new state minister in charge of the prefecture's affairs.

News photo
Shinji Tarutoko

The budget to boost economic growth and promote Okinawa had steadily declined over the past decade before rising by a minute 0.1 percent in fiscal 2011. But it was hiked by a massive 27.6 percent in the current fiscal year, topping ¥290 billion.

The spike, however, triggered criticism that the central government is trying to buy the consent of Okinawans over long-stalled plans to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from heavily populated Ginowan to the more remote Henoko coastal district farther north on Okinawa Island.

In an interview with The Japan Times and other media outlets this week, Tarutoko, also appointed internal affairs minister in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, brushed aside these allegations and indicated his intention to secure a similar amount for the prefecture in the fiscal 2013 budget.

"There is no connection between the government's new promotion plan (for Okinawa) and the Futenma base's relocation," Tarutoko said.

"The government has the obligation to continuously promote and develop Okinawa for its residents, who continue to shoulder a heavy burden (from hosting U.S. military facilities). . . . The plan should not be affected by various ongoing issues" in the prefecture.

Tarutoko, 53, acknowledged that opposition among the public against the central government's current relocation plan for the Futenma base and the deployment earlier this month of the tilt-rotor Osprey aircrafts, which are viewed by many as a safety hazard, to the facility is becoming increasingly strident.

"I think all the government can do at this point is to show that it is earnestly trying to resolve these issues," Tarutoko stressed, adding he intends to visit the prefecture as soon as possible.

"People all have feelings — they are not machines. . . . As a politician, it is important to be able to demonstrate (the government's) sincerity to" Okinawa's residents and officials, he said.

Concurrently serving as state minister handling the territorial dispute over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, Tarutoko voiced his intention to begin negotiations with Moscow in a "quiet" environment, unlike the blazing diplomatic clash that has erupted with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands and, to a lesser extent, with Seoul over the Takeshima isles.

Tokyo and Moscow are expected to commence high-level discussions later this month on resolving the decades-old row over the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, while Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is set to visit Russia in December.

"We will make resolute efforts to negotiate with Russia in a calm and peaceful atmosphere to reach a point where both sides can agree (to resolve the issue) without wavering on the government's fundamental position" that the islands are an inherent part of Japanese territory, Tarutoko said.

The disputed sovereignty of the isles, which were seized by Soviet forces at the end of the war, has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a formal postwar peace treaty, and decades of negotiations have yielded no tangible results.

"The issue has remained ongoing for close to 70 years, and I don't believe we can resolve it one day all of a sudden. It is a matter that we must deal with steadily," Tarutoko said.

In a separate interview, he stressed the importance of delegating more of the central government's administrative powers to regional authorities and said the ruling coalition aims to submit a relevant bill during the extraordinary Diet session that could convene as early as this month. But Tarutoko added that he needs to hold further discussions with heads of local governments, as not all of them back the proposed legislation.

"I always say the central government should be small and highly effective, and that local governments should provide a wide range of services," he said. "The government should concentrate on (national policies) while local governments, which are closer to citizens, should implement measures related to their daily lives."

However, Tarutoko confirmed the central government will continue to allocate revenue from national taxes to regional authorities facing with tax income shorfalls.

A Lower House member from Osaka, Tarutoko is currently serving his fifth term and like Noda, he too is a graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. Still, he was not widely known until running against former Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the Democratic Party of Japan's 2010 presidential race.

Since then, he has held key positions in the ruling party, serving as its Diet affairs chief and most recently as deputy secretary general, before being appointed minister for the first time in the Oct. 1 Cabinet reshuffle.



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