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Japan to Tell Obama It Wants Okinawa Marine Base Closed

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The relocation of a U.S. Marine base on Okinawa is expected to be on the top of the agenda when President Barack Obama visits Tokyo this week. The United States and Japan agreed three years ago to move the base to another part of the island in five years. But the new Japanese administration wants that plan put on hold.

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma sits in a crowded area of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. Homes and businesses surround the base, which the Marines mostly use for helicopters.

The base is home to 2,000 marines and has long been a sore point for Okinawans. Residents who live nearby complain of aircraft noise. Occasional accidents have raised concerns about their safety. In a crowded community, the base is seen as land for new homes and businesses.

Plan to move

In 2006, Japan and the United States agreed to close Futenma and move its facilities to another Marine base with a heliport built on reclaimed land offshore. That agreement also called for 8,000 marines to be moved off Okinawa, to the U.S. territory of Guam.

The plan came after 15 years of negotiations but Japan's new government now wants to reconsider it.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan won a historic election in August, in part by calling for a review of that 2006 agreement. Four DPJ members from Okinawa won parliamentary seats with promises of reducing the U.S. troop presence on the island.

Denny Tamaki is one of Okinawa's parliament ministers.

He says they won because voters believed they could achieve what the previous administration could not. That includes resolving the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

Tamaki wants Futenma's marines and training facilities off the island altogether. And polls show his constituents overwhelmingly support that view.

Move or close?

In a recent poll by one of Japan's national newspapers, nearly 70 percent of Okinawans said they opposed moving Futenma to another part of the island. The same percentage think Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama should negotiate with the U.S. to move Futenma out of the prefecture or the country altogether.

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Washington, however, has dismissed that idea. In his visit to Tokyo last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said there was no room for renegotiating the deal.

"Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam," Gates said. "Without relocation to Guam there will be no consolidation of forces and return of land in Okinawa."

Okinawa is Japan's smallest prefecture in terms of land, but it is home to about half the approximately 47,000 U.S. military personnel on bases and ships in the country. They are spread over more than 10 large facilities and many smaller ones on Okinawa.

Crimes fuel tension

Tensions over the U.S. military presence in Okinawa have been building for decades. They rose sharply after three U.S. servicemen were convicted of raping a schoolgirl. In 2004, a U.S. helicopter crashed on a local university. Nobody was seriously injured but the accident raised more concerns about the safety of residents.

Okinawans say moving Futenma would threaten wildlife in the rural northern part of the island. They also say proceeding with the 2006 agreement would break the DPJ's campaign promise.

No firm stand

Tamaki says Mr. Hatoyama needs to come out and say no more bases will be built on Okinawa. He says the prime minister should declare Japan will not go by the 2006 agreement and will start negotiations from scratch.

So far, Mr. Hatoyama has not taken a firm stand on the issue. He has only said that Japan will not be pressured into a decision. He wants to review the plan and come up with a conclusion Okinawans can agree on.

The delay could complicate a traditionally warm relationship between the U.S. and Japan. Masaaki Gabe is an international relations professor at the University of the Ryuku Islands on Okinawa. He says Japan has had a history of saying "yes" to U.S. demands. Mr. Hatoyama is trying to change that and alter the nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

New Japanese face?

Gabe says Japan has been an ideal partner to the U.S. for so long. But this debate over Futenma has exposed a side of Japan the U.S. has never seen before.

DPJ members such as Tamaki say the discussions are a healthy debate that will strengthen the alliance. And Washington considers Japan an important part of its efforts to maintain stability in Asia. The two countries have created a cabinet-level group in hopes of resolving the dispute soon, but Gabe expects the debate to drag out for months, while Japanese leaders try to find common ground.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Hatoyama plan to hold a press conference together when he arrives Friday. But both sides have already said the Futenma relocation will not be the focus and say the issue will not be resolved in a two-day visit.