Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama broke a key campaign pledge Tuesday, telling the people on the southern island Okinawa that a U.S. Marine base would not be removed completely.
Speaking on his first visit to Okinawa since taking office last year, Mr. Hatoyama said it will be "difficult" to transfer all the functions of the Futenma U.S. Marine base outside of the island.
He apologized to Okinawans, saying some U.S. Marines must remain on Okinawa to provide deterrence and maintain the U.S.-Japan alliance. He was speaking after talks with local officials and residents, who reacted angrily to his comments. Prime Minister Hatoyama says he is still working with local officials to move the base to a less populated area.
Large rallies have been held recently with protestors complaining about the airfield's noise, safety and air pollution. Okinawans have long been opposed to the Futenma base, which hosts about half of the 47,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan.
The Japanese prime minister has seen his approval rating fall sharply in recent months in part due to a perceived lack of leadership. He has set himself a deadline of the end of May to strike a deal on the base acceptable to all parties, including Washington.
His ruling Democratic Party faces a key test of popular support in July, when Japan is due to hold elections for its upper house of parliament.
Tokyo and Washington agreed in 2006 to move the Futenma base to a less crowded part of Okinawa, but the plans stalled after protests from some of the proposed localities. The 1995 rape of a Okinawan school girl by three U.S. servicemen prompted the deal.
In 2004, a U.S. Marine transport helicopter crashed at a nearby university, killing three crew members but causing no injuries on the ground.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.