Japan to give Obama a plan on Okinawa base


POSTED: Thursday, December 10, 2009

TOKYO—Japan's prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, said Wednesday that he wanted to present concrete proposals to President Barack Obama next week in hopes of ending a growing rift between his new government and Washington over an American military air base in Okinawa.

Hatoyama did not disclose the content of the proposals, which he and members of his Cabinet appeared to be still working out at the prime minister's residence. He said he might seek a meeting with Obama during the climate change conference in Copenhagen to relay the proposals directly to him.

In particular, it remained unclear if the proposals would seek to significantly alter a 2006 deal to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the middle of the city of Ginowan to a less populated part of Okinawa.

Hatoyama, who took office three months ago, is under political pressure in Japan to fulfill campaign pledges to move the base off Okinawa, if not out of Japan altogether. But Washington has adamantly opposed changing the current deal, which is part of a broader, laboriously negotiated agreement to move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

The discord over the base's relocation has emerged as the most contentious topic in the countries' increasingly tense relationship. Recent comments by some Japanese Cabinet members, however, seem to reflect a growing sense of urgency to prevent the Futenma issue from causing a serious rupture in the relationship with the United States, Japan's longtime protector.

Political analysts have said the dispute highlights the lack of communication between Tokyo and Washington after an election victory in August by Hatoyama's Democratic Party ended a half-century of leadership by the pro-American Liberal Democrats.

Fears of a rupture seemed to increase this week after Japan's foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, announced Tuesday that talks over the Futenma issue had been suspended. A Japanese official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the news media, said American negotiators had become irritated by Hatoyama's delays in making a decision on the issue.

When asked by reporters on Wednesday if the Futenma issue was hurting the alliance, Hatoyama replied that that was not the message he was getting from the Obama administration. Some in the United States “;may state such an opinion, but that is not a remark made in formal negotiations,”; he told reporters.

Earlier, a government spokesman said Tokyo might ask Washington to ease the burden on Okinawa, where many of the 50,000 American military personnel in Japan are based. The spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, also said there might be delays in carrying out the broader plan to relocate the 8,000 Marines to Guam, now set to take place by 2014.

Reports in major Japanese newspapers have said Tokyo may propose an immediate relocation of the Marine helicopters at Futenma to another base, as well as steps to clean up environmental damage on many of the American bases. The noise and danger from Futenma's low-flying helicopters have become a symbol here of the burden placed on Okinawans, who have held large protests in recent weeks calling for removal of the base from the island.