Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Monday justified his decision to keep a controversial U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa, saying a solid US—Japan relationship was of “utmost importance” in view of rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

He apologized to the people of the island, about 1,600 kilometres south—west of Tokyo, for going back on an earlier promise to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off Okinawa and maybe even out of Japan. “I express my heartfelt apology for not being able to stand by my words,” he was quoted as saying Sunday in an online report by the Asahi daily. Tokyo plans to relocate the base 50 kilometres north—east from the its current location in the centre of Ginowan town to an existing military base on the less—populated coast, near the town of Nago.

The arrangement is largely consistent with an agreement made with the U.S. by the previous conservative government in 2006. Tokyo then agreed that helicopter squadrons could be based on the thinly populated northern tip of Okinawa until 2014. At the same time, 8,000 US marines are to be moved to Guam, a U.S. island around 2,500 kilometres south of Japan.

Relations between the U.S. and Japan have cooled since Mr. Hatoyama, who came to power in September, pledged in his electoral campaign to remove the base from the island.

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima criticized the government’s U—turn, accusing Mr. Hatoyama of betraying his prefecture, Japanese media reported. In recent weeks, up to 90,000 people have protested against the plans to relocate the unpopular base instead of moving it off the island. Okinawa is of strategic military importance to the U.S. due to its proximity to China, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula. The noise, safety risks and crimes committed by servicemen have turned most Okinawans against the U.S. military presence.

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