Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said on Tuesday that moving a major US base away from the island of Okinawa would be difficult given strained US—Japan ties, breaking a promise he previously made. On his first visit to the island since taking office in September, Mr. Hatoyama said he came to ask Okinawans to continue to bear the burden of the US military presence, as moving the functions of the US Marine Corp Air Station Futenma abroad would be “impossible.” Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan pledged to move the base away from Okinawa or even abroad, contrary to an agreement with Washington that saw the base moving to a less populated location on the island. The Futenma base is located in the middle of a densely populated area in central Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the 47,000 US soldiers in Japan. Okinawans have long been critical of the US military presence on their island and crimes committed by US troops there. US military facilities occupy some 20 per cent of the island’s total area.
Mr. Hatoyama saw his popularity ratings steadily declining ahead of an upper house election this summer, partly over his waffling over Futenma. The DPJ promised in the past to move the base and Mr. Hatoyama set a self—imposed end—of—May deadline to resolve the dispute. The US and Japan agreed in 1996 to close Futenma and construct a new airfield facility at the nearby town of Nago to take over its functions, but opposition from locals and environmental groups has prevented construction.
Mr. Hatoyama is to meet Nago mayor Susumu Inamine to discuss the plan to construct the airfield facility there. Mr. Inamine, who opposes the construction, was elected mayor in January, putting more pressure on the government to look for another site.
On April 25, tens of thousands of local residents attended a protest rally and urged the US and Japanese governments to move Futenma Air Base from the island. A government plan to move part of the base to the island of Tokunoshima, about 200 kilometres north—east of Okinawa, met with opposition from both US officials and Tokunoshima’s residents.
Keywords: Diplomatic appeal,