Hatoyama unveils base move within Okinawa, offers apology

NAHA, Japan - Protesters stage a rally near the Okinawa prefectural government office in Naha on May 23, 2010 against Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's policy on the relocation of a U.S. Marine base after the premier apologized for failing to keep his promise to move the base out of Okinawa. (Kyodo)

NAHA, Japan — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on May 23 unveiled for the first time his government’s plan to relocate a U.S. Marine base within Okinawa and apologized for his failure to make good on his earlier vow to move the military facility outside the prefecture.

“We came to the conclusion that we have to ask local residents to accept the base relocation to an area near the Henoko district” in Nago, Okinawa, the premier told Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima in their second meeting this month — open to the press — at the Okinawa prefectural government office.

He said the relocation within the prefecture was a “heartbreaking” decision to achieve the return of land occupied by the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station to locals and extended his “heartfelt apology for causing much confusion” among Okinawans in the process of reaching that conclusion.

Nakaima expressed his “extreme regret” over the government’s decision and said he considers it “extremely difficult” to go ahead with the plan, because expectations had mounted among local residents that Hatoyama would try to transfer functions of Futenma out of the southwesternmost prefecture.

“The gap between people’s expectations (and the latest government decision) is huge. I expect the premier to take time to offer further explanations and work out a solution that would satisfy us,” the governor told Hatoyama.

Nakaima also told reporters later he feels the premier has “betrayed” Okinawa residents.

In the meeting, Hatoyama also said he will ask other Japanese prefectures at a meeting of governors on May 27 to accept some of the U.S. military drills currently conducted in Okinawa.

The premier said the government has given up on the plan to transfer Futenma’s heliport functions out of Okinawa due to “remaining uncertainties in East Asia,” especially on the Korean Peninsula.

“As a premier, I have to say we cannot allow the situation in which deterrence provided by the U.S. forces in Japan will diminish,” he said.

Hatoyama later told reporters the government will try to continue negotiations with the United States to implement measures to ease base-hosting burdens on Okinawa beyond his self-imposed deadline of May 31 for settling the issue.

Japan and the United States broadly agreed May 22 on a fresh accord expected to be announced on May 28 which effectively states the Futenma facility in the populous city of Ginowan will be moved to land to be created through filling in the sea near the Marines’ Camp Schwab at Cape Henoko in Nago, sources close to the matter said.

The fresh agreement is effectively on par with an existing relocation plan under a 2006 Japan-U.S. accord aimed at transferring the Futenma functions within Okinawa, while relocating around 8,000 Marines to Guam from there, both by 2014.

Nakaima told reporters of his displeasure at the government’s attitude in offering explanations to Okinawa after reaching a framework agreement with Washington.

About 1,000 local protesters staged a rally outside of the prefectural government office, calling on Hatoyama to abandon the plan to relocate the base within the prefecture. Many of them held up a card bearing a Chinese character for “anger.”

During his one-day trip, the premier also met with Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine and 11 other local municipality heads in Nago and faced a strong backlash from the mayor, who was elected in January on his opposition to the Futenma relocation plan.

“I cannot hide my rage at the new Japan-U.S. accord as it betrays the sentiment of people in Nago and Okinawa, who have called for the (Futenma) transfer out of the prefecture,” Inamine told Hatoyama.

“As Nago mayor, I express my firm opposition to the Futenma relocation to Henoko. Nago needs no new base,” the mayor said in his remarks.

After the meeting, Inamine told reporters that the possibility of realizing the Futenma move to his city is “close to zero,” as local opposition has been gaining momentum recently. The mayor also said Hatoyama did not provide specific information on how the envisioned replacement facility would be built.

The mayors urged Hatoyama to have the Japanese government request the United States to try to reduce the incidence of crimes and accidents associated with the U.S. military presence, saying no other Japanese municipalities would accept the U.S. base relocation under the current circumstances, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yorihisa Matsuno.

The premier pledged to press Washington to maintain discipline among the U.S. military personnel in Japan, said Matsuno, who accompanied Hatoyama.

In the afternoon, the premier held talks with local business representatives in Naha with the intention of discussing measures to invigorate the local economy, but the participants, infuriated by the government’s relocation plan, made the base issue the focus of the talks instead.

In a related move, Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, told reporters in Fukuoka she is against the plan unveiled by the premier to move the Futenma facility to Nago. The SDP is a coalition partner of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan led by Hatoyama.

Wrapping up his trip to Okinawa, which included a visit to a Naha memorial museum dedicated to civilian casualties of a 1944 U.S. torpedo attack on a Japanese ship during World War II, the premier told reporters he will “continue to seek the support of the SDP in the coalition government.”

Before coming to power, the premier had pledged during an election campaign last summer that he would seek to move Futenma functions out of Okinawa altogether to ease the prefecture’s base-hosting burdens, such as noise pollution and concerns over accidents and crimes associated with the U.S. military presence.

Okinawa hosts about 75 percent of the land area used for U.S. military facilities in Japan and half of the roughly 50,000 U.S. service personnel in the country.

The premier repeated his apology before leaving Okinawa in the evening, telling reporters that he “sincerely regrets” his failure to meet growing expectations for the base removal among Okinawans.

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