Okinawans angry over U.S. base plan, PM at risk

By Yoko Nishikawa

TOKYO (BestGrowthStock) – Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Sunday abandoned a pledge to move a U.S. air base off Okinawa, fanning local anger, upsetting a coalition partner and risking another blow to his ratings ahead of a mid-year election.

Hatoyama said he had concluded the base should be shifted to the Henoko area of the northern Okinawa city of Nago — largely in line with a 2006 U.S-Japan agreement. But the governor of Okinawa quickly said it would be tough to accept such a plan.

Voter perception that Hatoyama has mishandled the Futenma air base row has eroded government support, threatening the ruling Democratic Party’s chances in the upper house election, which it must win to avoid policy deadlock.

Hatoyama has set himself an end-May deadline to resolve the problem, which has frayed ties with Tokyo’s key security ally Washington just as the two countries confront security challenges such as an unpredictable North Korea and a rising China.

“Concerns and anger that people in Okinawa have are understandable,” Hatoyama told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima in a meeting at the Okinawa prefecture office, as a crowd of protesters stood outside carrying signs opposing the plan and shouting “Go home.”

“But as shown in recent developments in the Korean peninsula, uncertainty remains over security in East Asia and we cannot let the deterrence of U.S. military forces in Japan decline.

“It is a heart-rending decision for me,” Hatoyama added and apologized to the people of Okinawa, for failing to succeed in shifting the base off the island.

In a brief visit to Japan on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pyongyang’s sinking of a South Korean ship had underscored the importance of the alliance.

But the governor of Okinawa, host to about half the U.S. forces in Japan, expressed disappointment.

“The idea of moving the base to Henoko is quite regrettable and (accepting it) is extremely tough,” Nakaima told Hatoyama in the meeting, aired live on nationwide TV.

LOCAL ANGER

In the campaign that swept his party to power last year, Hatoyama had raised hopes the U.S. Marine base could be moved off Okinawa, but Washington has sought to stick to the 2006 deal to move the facility to Nago.

Hatoyama later shifted gears, saying some Marines had to stay to deter threats, a move that outraged many Okinawans and upset a small ruling party, the Social Democrats.

“It is the worst possible case. He has made enemies of the governor of Okinawa, the Democrats in Okinawa, his coalition partner and the opposition, and put ties with America first,” said independent political analyst Hirotaka Futatsuki.

“But once he promises this to the United States, even if Okinawa objects, ultimately, they will have to move it to Henoko.”

In a separate meeting, Nago City Mayor Susumu Inamine, elected in January on an anti-base platform, told Hatoyama that the plan was “absolutely unacceptable.”

“I cannot help feeling angry as this betrays feelings of people in Nago and Okinawa, who have called for the base to be moved out of the prefecture,” Inamine told Hatoyama.

Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Social Democratic Party, told reporters she opposed Hatoyama’s plan. But she also said no decision has been made on whether her party would leave the coalition government over the issue, Kyodo news agency reported.

The tiny Social Democratic Party’s votes are no longer needed to pass bills smoothly in parliament, but a rift in the coalition ahead of the upper house election would be ill-timed.

Japanese media said a formal agreement with the United States on the plan would be announced on Friday, when Hatoyama is expected to give a news conference. Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said he would visit Washington on Monday to further discuss the plan with his counterpart, Robert Gates.

Details of the new deal with Washington, including the exact location of a new runway and the construction method, are to be worked out before President Barack Obama visits Japan in November for an Asia-Pacific leaders summit, Japanese media said.

Hatoyama said the government would continue to negotiate with the United States to lessen the burden on Okinawa, where residents have long resented bearing what they feel is an unfair burden for maintaining the security alliance.

“I don’t consider this as the end.”

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(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

Okinawans angry over U.S. base plan, PM at risk