- The Washington Times - 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 Futenma Marine Corps airfield has become the focal point of U.S.-Japan ties since Yukio Hatoyama took office last September. He promised 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, Mr. Hatoyama conceded it would be difficult if not impossible to move Futenma’s facilities off the island, which hosts more than half the 47,000 American troops stationed in Japan under a security pact.

Mr. Hatoyama essentially acknowledged that his government has been unable to come up with any other 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.”

Mr. Hatoyama’s backtracking will likely drag down his public-approval ratings, which have fallen to about 20 percent amid a political funding scandal and perceived lack of leadership, and could even hurt his party’s prospects in July 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 Washington would likely 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 U.S. and Japan would continue an intensive evaluation of the best way to maintain American operations and to keep the alliance strong. He wouldn’t comment on specific options for the base.

“We value our alliance with Japan. We understand that this alliance both provides benefit to the American people and to the Japanese people. It also levies a burden on the American people and the Japanese people. We do recognize this,” Mr. Crowley told reporters.

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.

While Futenma’s fate remains uncertain, Mr. Hatoyama’s apparent move back toward the 2006 agreement could bring a measure of relief from Washington, which has insisted that Japan keep its side of the deal, forged with the previous conservative Tokyo government, and proceed with the move to Nago.

American officials say that keeping the base in Okinawa is important for maintaining regional stability, given the island’s geographical location — near Taiwan and China and not far from the Korean Peninsula.

The airfield, set in the middle of an urban area, is home to about 2,000 Marines and is one of the Corps’ largest facilities in the Pacific.

Mr. Hatoyama acknowledged that he lacked awareness when he entered office about the logistical reasons for keeping the Futenma Marine facility on the island.

“As I learned more about the situation, I’ve come to realize that they are all linked up [with the other troops] as a package to maintain deterrence,” he said.

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