GUAM – Tokyo’s efforts to gain Okinawan understanding for the U.S.-Japan troop realignment plan that would move a problematic Marine air base to the island’s fragile eastern coast took a step backward on Monday. A member of Tokyo’s Defense Ministry reportedly made an offensive comment about the island prefecture during a conversation about the environmental assessment study for the new base.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, the thoughtless remark by Satoshi Tanaka, the Defense Ministry’s bureau head in Okinawa, allegedly compared the plan to the raping of a woman, aggravating a lingering wound among local residents already wary that Tokyo remains too aloof to the military burden on their island.

Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa promised a strict response to the matter if the reports – first made by local Okinawan newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo — were verified.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has vowed to make real progress towards building the new air base, which underpins a massive troop realignment plan that includes transferring some Okinawa-based Marines to Guam. The new Okinawa facility and the dispersal of some troops to Guam would allow the United States to close a controversial Marine base in Okinawa’s crowded Futenma region and reduce the military’s footprint on that island prefecture.

Monday’s gaffe could hardly have come at a worse time for Mr. Noda’s government, which has worked hard to demonstrate to the U.S. that Japan remains committed to the long-delayed realignment plan.

Soon after coming to power last September, Mr. Noda set an aggressive timetable for completing the environmental study related to the Futenma replacement facility this year. He intends to seek approval by next summer from Okinawa’s Governor for coastal land reclamation.

Yesterday’s setback is yet another reminder of the complex sensitivities around Okinawa’s militarization and the significant hurdles towards a Futenma solution that have stumped a line of Mr. Noda’s predecessors.


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Photo used in this article courtesy U.S. Department of Defense. Photo by Cpl. Uriel De Luna-Felix, U.S. Marine Corps.