Report: Japan suspends talks on future of U.S. air base

Map of Okinawa, Japan, where the U.S. is negotiating the future of a military air station.
By Blaine Harden
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SEOUL -- A rift between the United States and Japan over the future of a military air station on Okinawa widened Tuesday, as Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told Japanese media that talks on relocating the base have been suspended.

The report offers additional evidence that the newly elected government of Japan is uncomfortable with the military footprint of the United States. Most of the 36,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan are based on the southern island of Okinawa.

Japan may ask the United States to mitigate the military's impact on the daily life of Okinawans before reaching a conclusion on what to do about the air station, Hirofumi Hirano, the chief cabinet secretary, said Tuesday.

"The biggest priority for the Japanese side is to reduce burdens on the people of Okinawa," he said at a news conference.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo declined to comment on the reported suspension of bilateral talks about the air base.

The Futenma Marine air station is in a densely populated part of Okinawa and has become a symbol of the noise, pollution and crime that many Japanese associate with the U.S. military presence.

A "high-level working group" was set up to resolve a dispute about the location of the base, but its meetings were inconclusive and have been suspended, with no resumption date set, Okada said at a news conference, according to the Kyodo news agency.

"We are now waiting to see whether we should hold the discussions again," said Okada, who is a member of the working group, as is U.S. Ambassador John Roos.

Japan and the United States agreed in 2006, as part of a $26 billion plan to move U.S. troops off and around Okinawa, that the Futenma air station would be moved to a new site on the island.

But Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was elected this year on a promise that he would be more assertive than previous Japanese leaders in dealing with the United States, has said he wants the air station moved off Okinawa -- possibly out of the country.

In recent weeks, mixed signals from his government about the future of the base have frustrated the Obama administration. President Obama said that the bilateral working group would merely "implement" the 2006 agreement, but Hatoyama later said that unless the group had the power to renegotiate the agreement, its meetings were pointless.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company