News / Asia

Japan Offers US New Proposal on Okinawa Military Base

A military plane and helicopters are seen at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa, Japan (2009 File)
A military plane and helicopters are seen at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa, Japan (2009 File)

The Japanese foreign minister is meeting with top U.S. officials to discuss the replacement of a military base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.  Katsuya Okada made the trip to Washington just days after Tokyo suggested a compromise that would split the base's operations between two Japanese islands.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has said for months that he will decide on the future of Okinawa's Marine Corps Air Station Futenma by the end of March.

With the clock ticking, the government has aired several proposals.

One option his government is considering places some Futenma operations on Camp Schwab, a Marine base in northeastern Okinawa.  Another proposes moving operations to reclaimed land off a small U.S. navy base on the island.  Some training would be moved to a small island closer to the main Japanese archipelago.

Hirofumi Hirano, the government's chief spokesman, says the prime minister is not tied to any specific alternative.  He adds that Mr. Hatoyama still intends to present the U.S. with a finalized plan by Wednesday.

The Japanese government has said it hopes to reach an agreement with the U.S. on Futenma by May.

The U.S. and Japan have been at odds on Futenma for six months.  The U.S. says a 2006 agreement to move the base to a remote part of Okinawa is not up for debate.

But Japan's ruling Democratic Party won a historic election last fall, in part because of a promise to move Futenma off the island.

Okinawa, Japan's smallest prefecture, is home to about half the U.S. troops in Japan - more than 20,000, plus their families and civilian support staff.  Residents have long complained about noise and hazards from the bases.  As Okinawa's population has grown, Futenma has become surrounded by a crowded city, giving rise to strong demands that it be closed.

The 2006 plan, which was reached after more than 10 years of negotiations, also involves moving about 8,000 Marines and their families to the U.S. island of Guam.  Washington says renegotiating the plan would delay that effort to cut troop numbers on Okinawa.

Jeff Kingston, who teaches modern Japanese history at the Tokyo branch of Temple University, says the new proposals will not play well in Washington, and could fail.

"They want to be able to lay this off on U.S. pressure," said Kingston.  "We did our best, we tried but ultimately we failed because the U.S. would not concede."

Okada has tried to ease concerns about the U.S.-Japan alliance, saying it does not hinge on the future of Futenma.

Kingston says Mr. Hatoyama and the DPJ will suffer politically regardless which option he chooses.  But he adds the administration is running out of time to meet his deadline.

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