- Associated Press - Sunday, May 23, 2010

TOKYO (AP) — Okinawans were outraged Sunday that Japan’s prime minister reneged on his campaign pledge to move a strategic U.S. military base off their island, a broken promise that deepens political confusion ahead of nationwide elections.

Angry protesters held big signs plastered with the Japanese character for “anger” as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited the Okinawa prefectural office.

Prefectural chief Hirokazu Nakaima said later that Mr. Hatoyama had raised residents’ hopes.

“The way he has dashed our hopes is such a disappointment. We need a solution to be worked out,” he said.

The people of Okinawa long have complained about the noise, jet-crash dangers and crime that come from housing more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, stationed under the bilateral defense alliance. The United States and Japan agreed on the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in 2006, and Washington has insisted Japan keep the deal.

Mr. Hatoyama’s popularity has plunged as voters increasingly are disenchanted with his failure to act on a number of campaign pledges, including the Futenma move, as well as promises for toll-free highways and cash payments for babies.

Mr. Hatoyama, nicknamed “space alien” by the public, basked in nearly unanimous popularity at the start of his term but now is even llambasted even for his taste in gaudy shirts, including a checkered one he wore to a recent party. He wore a pale blue shirt without a tie to Okinawa.

During the visit, Mr. Hatoyama apologized for failing to make good on his promise to move the U.S. air base off the island, perhaps even out of Japan.

“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the confusion that I have caused the people of Okinawa,” he told Mr. Nakaima.

His concession restores the plan chiseled by the former governing party, or one similar to it: Build another base on Okinawa, but in a coastal area less crowded than the residential sector where Futenma is now.

Japanese media reported Henoko, the coastal area chosen in 2006, will house the new base, but the plan lacked further details. Government offices were closed over the weekend, and officials were not available for comment on the reports.

Mr. Hatoyama previously said he would decide by the end of this month, but on Sunday he said more talks would be needed with Okinawa to work out an agreeable deal.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has said that he discussed Futenma plans with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton while she was in Tokyo on Friday.

After Mrs. Clinton’s talks, U.S. officials said they were hopeful an agreement could be reached quickly, as the Japanese position had shifted.

One reason for the change was the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, blamed on North Korea, they said. The possible attack underscored serious security challenges in the region and the importance of the U.S. military presence, they said.

That presence is key to Washington’s strategy in the Pacific because of Okinawa’s proximity to China, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.

Over the past half year, Mr. Hatoyama has pursued other alternatives, including moving some of the base functions to another southern Japanese island.

But the people there didn’t want a U.S. base either. And each of the other options was ruled out as impractical, raising questions on whether Mr. Hatoyama ever had much of a real plan when he had made his promise.

Mr. Hatoyama said environmental issues, besides people’s living conditions, need to be taken into account to forge details for the base relocation.

Henoko Bay is home to ocean life, including the endangered dugong, as well as turtles and mangroves. Building a landing strip will involve using landfill that likely will destroy such natural habitat.

Okinawa was the site of one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War II and was occupied by the U.S. before being returned to Japan in 1972. Residents have felt they have been treated like second-class citizens by both countries.

“How would you feel if someone told you that a military base was coming to your neighborhood?” asked cab driver Yukinori Uehara in a telephone interview. “If you aren’t in Okinawa, you can’t really understand how we in Okinawa feel.”

Mr. Nakaima and other local leaders also are opposed to keeping the military base on the island. “I must tell you that your decision is extremely regrettable and very difficult to accept,” Mr. Nakaima said to Mr. Hatoyama.

The failure to appease the people of Okinawa is likely to be Mr. Hatoyama’s biggest problem as Japan heads into nationwide elections, which must be held sometime in or around July.

Minoru Morita, who has written several books on Japanese politics, said the recent problems highlight the immaturity of the Democratic leaders, who seized power after near-constant rule by the Liberal Democrats after World War II.

“The Okinawan people are outraged. They feel Hatoyama betrayed them,” Mr. Morita said. “The Democrats didn’t think through what they could change and what they couldn’t change. The base issue is an international agreement. They are ignorant and irrational.”

Analyst and politics expert Eiken Itagaki was more sympathetic, noting that Mr. Hatoyama was the first prime minister who had started an ambitious effort to reduce the U.S. military presence in Japan.

“This is the first step, maybe just half a step,” he told the Associated Press. “Although it did not result in change yet, it got the Japanese people thinking about the base problem.”

Mr. Morita and Mr. Itagaki were agreed in forecasting divisive balloting for the upper house of Parliament, with splinter groups breaking off from both the Democrats and the Liberal Democrats, setting off continued political chaos.

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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