Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Tuesday he would press his country's case in Washington this week for reducing what he called "the excessive burden" placed on Okinawa by the presence of U.S. troops. But he said he would urge the Americans to leave adequate forces in Japan to promote security in the region.
"The U.S. is trying to rationally realign its military to respond to the new era," Machimura said in an interview. "As for Japan, we are requesting that the U.S. retain its role of maintaining the security and peace of Japan, the Far East and its surrounding areas."
The United States is seeking to redefine the role of its troops in Japan, now numbering about 47,000, as part of a broader strategy to make American forces around the world more geared to small conflicts and more readily deployable .
Machimura will meet with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Thursday afternoon to follow up on discussions between President Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi two weeks ago in New York, where the leaders promised to "make efforts" to reduce the burden of U.S. troops in Japan while maintaining security.
The realignment, sources close to the talks say, is envisioned as far smaller in scope than those planned in South Korea and Germany, where the United States is scheduled to pull out thousands of troops over the next several years. It remains unclear whether Japan would experience a net reduction in forces or merely a shift in personnel and equipment among different bases in the country.
Japan has relied on the United States for security since the end of World War II, but no place in the country has been affected more than Okinawa, where more than half of the U.S. forces in Japan are based.
Sources familiar with the talks say the United States is offering a 10 percent reduction in the 25,500 troops now stationed on Okinawa, where many residents strongly oppose the American presence. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
At the same time, U.S. officials may seek the relocation of the headquarters of the 1st Army from Fort Gillem, Ga., to Camp Zama on the outskirts of Tokyo. Some U.S. units could also be consolidated on Japanese bases.
The United States is also reportedly seeking to expand the mission of its troops stationed in Japan beyond their traditional emphasis on defending the Japanese islands, so they would be on call for deployment to the Middle East and Africa.
But there is staunch opposition among some Japanese to that idea. While the United States is pushing for quick agreement, analysts here said the talks could last months.
Machimura, a former education minister named to his new post by Koizumi last week, declined to discuss numbers or other specifics of the realignment. "Right now, we are at the stage of discussing the issues freely and actively, so naturally, there are disagreements as well as agreements," he said in the interview.
One of the most complicated issues is whether U.S. troops leaving Okinawa would be restationed elsewhere in Japan. Machimura did not rule that out, but said opposition in other parts of country might make such a move difficult. One solution, he said, could be rebasing those troops in the United States or elsewhere in the region.
Machimura's topics in Washington are also likely to include North Korea and the stalled international talks aimed at dismantling the communist state's nuclear weapons programs.
In addition, Machimura said his agenda with Powell would include U.S. insistence that Japan lift a ban it imposed on U.S. beef last December after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States.
Japan was the world's largest foreign market for U.S. beef before a Canadian-bred cow in the state of Washington was found to have the disease.
Machimura said a decision on resuming imports would have to wait until after a domestic panel studying the issue deemed a resumption to be safe. [News reports in Tokyo Wednesday morning, however, indicated that the panel may relax guidelines for domestic testing of young cows -- a move that could soon open the way for imports of at least some U.S. beef.]