Japanese premier, in Okinawa, says at least part of U.S. base will remain there

By Malcolm Foster
Associated Press
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

TOKYO -- Japan's prime minister said for the first time Tuesday that at least part of a key U.S. military base will remain on the southern island of Okinawa, a move that could reduce tension with Washington but dent his sinking popularity and raise the ire of island residents.

A dispute over the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has become the focal point of U.S.-Japan ties since Yukio Hatoyama took office last September promising to move the base off Okinawa -- contrary to a 2006 agreement with Washington that called for it to be moved to a less crowded, northern part of the island.

But on his first visit to Okinawa as prime minister, Hatoyama conceded that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to move Futenma's facilities off the island, which hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan under a security pact.

Hatoyama essentially acknowledged that his government has been unable to come up with any viable alternatives to Nago, the proposed relocation site in the north, and is shifting back toward the 2006 plan.

"Realistically speaking, it is impossible," he said, wearing a traditional Okinawan short-sleeved shirt. "We have reached a conclusion that it is difficult to relocate all of Futenma's functions outside the country or the island because of a need to maintain deterrence under the Japan-U.S. alliance."

Hatoyama's backtracking is likely to drag down his public approval ratings, which have fallen to about 20 percent amid a political funding scandal and accusations of lack of leadership, and could hurt his party's prospects in July's upper house elections.

The prime minister, who had set an end-of-May deadline for a final decision on Futenma, asked for residents' understanding in keeping some of the base's functions on Okinawa, while possibly moving other functions off the island -- a division that the United States would probably find unacceptable.

"We must ask the people of Okinawa to share the burden," he said, adding that he "felt sorry" about the message he brought.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States and Japan will continue an intensive evaluation of the best way to maintain U.S. operations and to keep the alliance strong. He declined to comment on specific options for the base.

Okinawan residents have long complained about base-related noise, pollution and crime. Late last month, about 90,000 people gathered to demand that Futenma be moved off the island entirely.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company