Japan's prime minister said Tuesday that it will be impossible to move all parts of a key U.S. Marine base out of Okinawa, risking a political backlash by breaking with past promises to relocate the facility off the southern island.
It was the first time since Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister in September that he officially acknowledged that at least part of Futenma U.S. Marine Corps airfield would remain in Okinawa, which hosts more than half the 47,000 American troops based in Japan under a security pact.
The admission is likely to further dent Hatoyama's popularity, which has steadily declined since he took office with a pledge to re-examine Japan's relationship with the U.S.
Hatoyama had frozen a 2006 agreement with the U.S. on moving Futenma to Nago, a less crowded, northern part of the island, saying instead he wanted to move it off Okinawa, or even outside the country — straining ties with Washington.
His statements Tuesday means his government has been unable to come up with viable alternatives to Nago and was shifting back toward the 2006 plan.
"Realistically speaking, it is impossible. We're facing a situation that is realistically difficult to move everything out of the prefecture," he said on his first trip to Okinawa as prime minister.
Hatoyama sought residents' understanding to keep some of Futenma's functions on the island, while possibly moving other aspects off the island — although it was questionable that the U.S. would accept such a divided arrangement.
"We must ask the people of Okinawa to share the burden," he said. "We have reached a conclusion that it is difficult to relocate all of Futenma's functions outside the country or the island because of a need to maintain deterrence under the Japan-U.S. alliance."
He said he came to Okinawa to hear the views of the local people but added that he "felt sorry" about the message he had to bring.
'Lost the trust'
Hatoyama went so far as to admit that when he entered office he lacked awareness about the logistical reasons why the Marines on Futenma needed to be stationed near other military branches on the island.
Analysts said Hatoyama's reversal will likely make him appear wishy-washy and hurt his sinking approval ratings, which have plunged to about 20 percent amid a political funding scandal and perceived lack of leadership.
That could bode poorly for his Democratic Party in July's Upper House elections, although the opposition Liberal Democratic Party is in disarray.
"Hatoyama has already lost the trust and support of the general population," said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think-tank. "Hatoyama may be replaced before Upper House elections."
Thousands to move to Guam
Futenma's fate remains uncertain. The airfield, home to about 2,000 Marines, is one of the corps' largest facilities in the Pacific. American officials say keeping the base in Okinawa is important for maintaining regional stability given the island's geographical location — near Taiwan and China, and not too far from the Korean peninsula. And they insist that Nago is the only viable alternative for Futenma.
U.S. Defense Department officials have said that with delays on moving Futenma, the U.S. can't move ahead on the broader 2006 military reorganization agreement forged with the previous conservative Tokyo administration. That also involves moving 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam — largely to alleviate some of the burden on Okinawans.
Hatoyama faces strong local opposition to keeping Futenma's facilities on the island. Last month, about 90,000 residents and local officials gathered in the town of Yomitan to demonstrate their support for moving the base off Okinawa, and earlier this year an anti-base candidate was elected mayor of Nago, near the proposed relocation site.
Furor over rape, crash
Tensions on Okinawa over the huge U.S. military presence go back decades, but a furor erupted over a 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl, in which three American servicemen were convicted. Adding to the discontent was a 2004 crash of a U.S. helicopter that burst into flames on a university campus, although it caused no injuries on the ground.
According to Japanese media reports and vague comments from Cabinet members, Tokyo's latest plan roughly follows the 2006 agreement and will move Futenma to a location off the coast of Camp Schwab, a U.S. base near Nago.
Instead of building the base on reclaimed land, as outlined in the original plan — which environmentalists claim will damage marine life — Tokyo is floating a plan to construct a runway on a jetty that sits on pilings that go into the seafloor. It also proposes moving part of Futenma's helicopter unit to Tokunoshima, an island 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Okinawa.
Meanwhile, Japan and the U.S. launched working-level talks Tuesday on details of the Futenma relocation. Foreign and defense ministry officials from the two sides were holding a closed meeting at Japan's Defense Ministry in Tokyo.