TOKYO — The bicultural, newly elected governor of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa plans to visit the United States with a message to the American people: Stop building a disputed military base and build peace instead.
Denny Tamaki took office Oct. 4 after campaigning for a disputed U.S. Marine air base to be moved off the island and for the American military presence on Okinawa to be reduced. The small island hosts about half of the 54,000 American troops stationed in Japan and accounts for 64 percent of the land used for U.S. military bases.
Tamaki plans to visit New York and other U.S. cities in November, although dates and other details are not yet decided, according to the governor's office.
“I want the American people to understand what has been, what is and what will be, to solve this problem,” Tamaki told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday at the Tokyo office for Okinawa prefecture.
The son of a U.S. Marine faces opposition to the U.S. military presence on the island, and plans for a new U.S. air base.
Tamaki, 59, is the first person with an American parent to lead Okinawa, and he stressed that his bicultural roots make him perfect to relay a message to the U.S. public.
His father is a U.S. Marine he has never met. His mother, who raised him on Okinawa, burned all his father's letters and photos, Tamaki recalled.
But he would like to meet his father in the U.S. and hug him, he added.
"I'd like to say, 'Hi, dad. How've you been?'" he said in English and Japanese, adding jokingly perhaps 100 people might come forward.
He acknowledged he was not sure what he thought of the overall policy stances of President Donald Trump. A meeting with Trump is not on the trip agenda.
Tamaki said although Trump appeared to take a negative view toward Asia on trade, his gestures for reconciliation with North Korea, including a summit earlier this year with leader Kim Jong Un, showed Trump was committed to pursuing regional peace.
"I would like to make it a win-win situation," for Trump and Okinawa, said Tamaki, friendly and relaxed in the office filled with lion statues and woven tropical fabric.
Tamaki, who had a radio show before becoming a parliamentary lawmaker in 2009, said he was all for the U.S.-Japan bilateral security treaty, signed after Japan's defeat in World War II. He is also not opposed to Japan's having troops for self-defense, he said.
But Japanese people need to understand and talk more about security issues, defense spending and the unfair burden on Okinawa of hosting U.S. troops, he added.
Okinawa's demands must be coordinated with the overall American plan to relocate U.S. Marines in the Pacific, Tamaki said.
At the center of contention is relocating a U.S. air base from densely populated Futenma in Okinawa to less-crowded Henoko on its 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.
"The people of Okinawa have opposed this new base for more than two decades and so there is a basic mistake in Henoko" because the democratic process is being ignored, Tamaki said.
"We believe the Japanese government should assert that view to the American government, not keep insisting that Henoko is the only solution."
Japan’s central government resumed work at a disputed U.S. military base relocation site on Okinawa on Thursday even though residents see the project as an undemocratic imposition on the small southern island.
Although much of world, including mainstream Japanese media and the public, have tended to overlook the complaints from Okinawa, Tamaki's rise has brought attention to the historical dilemma with an undeniable clarity.
Stephen Nagy, professor of international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo, said Tamaki is increasingly seen as a bridge between Japan and the U.S.
"Gov. Tamaki might be an ideal individual to convey and create a dialogue and understanding of both sides," he said.
But he also faces a difficult reality, Nagy said.
"It's Okinawa's geographic position that gives it a crucial role in the security of Japan and also in projecting defensive power in the East and South China Seas and now in the Indo-Pacific, and I don't see that role diminishing."
Okinawa continued to be occupied by the U.S. after the rest of Japan regained sovereignty in 1952, and was officially returned to Japan only in 1972. Okinawa was also where one of the bloodiest land battles of World War II was fought.
After the war, crimes by members of the U.S. military, including vehicle hit-and-runs and rapes, have outraged the people of Okinawa. The planning for Henoko dates to a 1995 rape of a schoolgirl in which three American servicemen were convicted. Citizens are also angry about noise pollution and the dangers of accidents involving military aircraft.
Tamaki said he stood for Okinawa's culture, history and voice, noting his biracial makeup was common in Okinawa, where diversity was an asset as well as a vision for the future.
"There are many people like me," he said, adding that he wanted to build a peaceful, prosperous and gentle society.
"Okinawa is a place where people have a spirit of sharing, and that is an important part of my identity."
He repeatedly stressed that Okinawa, as a part of Japan, can't set national policy on its own, only prod the central government and the U.S. to listen. But when asked if he was interested in becoming Japan's prime minister, he agreed without hesitation.
"If people want it," he said.
He said he hadn't even initially imagined he would become a politician at all.
When asked how he had changed since he became governor, he searched for an answer.
He still plays in a band, singing mostly rock and playing guitar, and his love for Eric Clapton hasn't changed, he said, and so maybe he hadn't changed that much. But perhaps his new role was building more patience into his character.
“Maybe I grew up a little bit,” he said with a smile.