By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
TOKYO -- The wrestling match between the United States and Japan over the location of the U.S. Marine air station in Okinawa is far from over -- despite President Obama's chummy visit here with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
The two leaders now warmly address each other as Barack and Yukio. But they sharply disagree over the purpose of a "high-level working group" that they announced Friday to sort out an increasingly heated dispute over the future of the Marine air station, which has become a focus of anger on Okinawa.
That southern island accommodates most of the 36,000 U.S. military personnel based in Japan. Many Okinawans, after decades of living with noisy American aircraft and rambunctious American troops, have come to associate the U.S. military presence with noise, pollution and periodic crime.
Obama explained during his quick visit here that the working group, which includes U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos and the foreign and defense ministers of Japan, would focus only on implementing a 2006 agreement in which Tokyo agreed to allow the Futenma Marine Corps air station to be relocated on Okinawa.
White House officials later insisted this did not mean that the U.S. government would reopen or renegotiate the agreement, which is part of a $26 billion military deal that involves transferring 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. The United States is treaty-bound to defend Japan in case of attack.
But Hatoyama does not agree with this narrow interpretation of the working group's authority.
On Monday, he said the formation of the working group does, indeed, mean that Japan will be able to move beyond the language of the 2006 agreement.
"If our review is merely aimed at making a decision confirming the agreement, it's meaningless," Hatoyama told reporters in Tokyo. "If we already have an answer, we don't need to hold talks."
Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan was elected in August with a promise that Japan would be less passive in its relationship with the United States, has said the air station should be moved off Okinawa or even outside Japan.
No deadline has been set for the working group's decision, but both Obama and Hatoyama said they want it made quickly.
Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates warned that if Japan backs away from the 2006 agreement and decides not to allow the relocation of the air station on Okinawa, the United States would halt the transfer of 8,000 Marines to Guam and refrain from returning parcels of land to the Okinawan government.
The dispute over the air station has become the signature issue in Japan's recent efforts to assert its will in negotiations with its most important ally, as well as a symbol of Hatoyama's leadership ability. It is also the most serious sticking point in U.S.-Japanese relations in many years.