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Tags: Japan | Okinawa | base | US

Japan's PM to Visit Embattled Okinawa Base

Wednesday, 28 April 2010 09:56 AM

TOKYO — Japan's embattled premier said on Wednesday that he plans to visit Okinawa island to resolve a damaging row over an unpopular US airbase that has strained ties with Washington for months.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama hopes to present the southern islanders, who have staged mass rallies against the base, with a new plan to end the dispute which has hammered his support ratings ahead of summer elections.

"I hold in my heart a strong wish to speak directly with the local people," the centre-left leader said.

Broadcaster NHK said he would travel Tuesday to the island where 90,000 people protested against US bases last week.

The news came as a senior US envoy visited Tokyo for closed-door talks about the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which many locals oppose because of aircraft noise, the risk of accidents and friction with US troops.

Kurt Campbell -- the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs -- met senior officials a month ahead of Hatoyama's self-imposed end-of-May deadline to find a relocation site for the base.

The US envoy did not speak to reporters after meeting his counterpart Kazuyoshi Umemoto and senior defence official Nobushige Takamizawa.

Tetsuro Kato -- a politics professor at Tokyo's Waseda University -- said "the United States is increasingly distrusting Japan... and puzzled by inconsistent remarks by top officials of the Japanese government".

"I think the main objective of Campbell's visit was to scrutinise what Japan is really thinking about and whom they should trust," he told AFP.

"Since the United States is shifting its focus to China, Japan's presence is getting smaller and smaller in Washington.

"Futenma is certainly a big issue for Japan but it is not as big for the United States as Japan feels," he said.

The dispute centres on the seven-month-old Japanese government's review of a 2006 pact to move Futenma from a crowded urban area of Okinawa to a quieter coastal location of the subtropical island, where locals also oppose it.

While the drawn-out search for alternative sites has irritated Washington, it has also sparked protest rallies at new sites being considered, including Tokunoshima island, 200 kilometres (120 miles) northeast of Okinawa.

Under Hatoyama's latest plan, his government would nonetheless propose moving about 1,000 US Marines to the remote island, where their helicopters could use the local airport.

Under the reported plan, the bulk of Futenma's operations would be moved, as previously agreed, to Okinawa's coastal Henoko, but offshore runways would be built on pylons rather than landfill that would destroy coral reefs.

The festering row has help drive approval ratings for Hatoyama's government into the 20-percent range ahead of upper house elections slated for July.

Hatoyama had earlier said he wants to "put the final touches" to his plan, without revealing its details.

In Okinawa, he said he would seek a meeting with Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

The premier also sounded out the Tokunoshima option with a retired lawmaker, Torao Tokuda, whose family hails from the remote island near Okinawa, where more than half the local population joined a recent anti-base rally.

But Tokuda told the premier that "a US base is not acceptable" there, according to Tokuda's son, lower house lawmaker Takeshi Tokuda, who confirmed that Hatoyama had proposed moving 1,000 Marines there.

Waseda University's Kato said that, given the lack of easy options, "chances of resolving the issue by the end-of-May deadline are extremely slim".

Kato predicted that "Hatoyama is likely to shelve the issue and try to make time ahead of the upper house election".

"But he will certainly be in a tougher position. An end to the Hatoyama administration is becoming a real possibility."

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010 09:56 AM
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