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Okinawans irate over plan to keep base

Protesters demonstrated in Naha yesterday against the continued presence of a US military base in Okinawa. The people of Okinawa have long complained about the noise, jet-crash dangers, and crime worries that come from hosting the base. Protesters demonstrated in Naha yesterday against the continued presence of a US military base in Okinawa. The people of Okinawa have long complained about the noise, jet-crash dangers, and crime worries that come from hosting the base. (Reuters/ Kyodo)
By Yuri Kageyama
Associated Press / May 24, 2010

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TOKYO — Okinawans were outraged yesterday to learn that Japan’s prime minister reneged on his campaign pledge to move a US military base off their island, a decision that upholds a longstanding agreement with Washington.

Protesters held signs plastered with the Japanese character for “anger’’ as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited the Okinawa prefectural office. Hatoyama apologized for failing to make good on his promise to move the US air base off the island, perhaps even out of Japan.

“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the confusion that I have caused the people of Okinawa,’’ he said.

The broken promise deepens political confusion just weeks before nationwide elections.

The southern semitropical island is important to the US military because it is near China, Taiwan, and the Korean peninsula, where tensions have risen sharply after North Korea was blamed last week for the sinking of a South Korean warship.

The people of Okinawa have long complained about the noise, jet-crash dangers, and crime worries that come from housing more than half of the 47,000 US troops in Japan, stationed under the bilateral defense alliance.

The United States and Japan agreed in 2006 to move the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station to a less crowded part of Okinawa, and Washington has insisted that Japan hold to the deal. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday on a visit to Tokyo that Japan and the United States were seeking to resolve the dispute by the end of May, a deadline set by Hatoyama.

Prefectural chief Hirokazu Nakaima said Hatoyama’s campaign promise had raised the residents’ hopes. “The way he has dashed our hopes is such a disappointment. We need a solution to be worked out,’’ he said.

His concession to the United States restores the plan developed by the former governing party, or one similar to it: an Okinawa base in a coastal area less crowded than the residential sector where Futenma is now.

Japanese media reported Henoko, the coastal area chosen in 2006, will house the new base, but the plan lacked further details. Government offices were closed over the weekend, and officials were not available for comment.

The prime minister’s popularity has plunged as voters increasingly are disenchanted with his failure to act on a number of campaign pledges, including the Futenma move, as well as promises for toll-free highways and cash payments for babies.

Nicknamed “space alien’’ by the public, Hatoyama basked in nearly unanimous popularity at the start but now is even lambasted for his taste in gaudy shirts.

After Clinton’s talks with Japanese officials, US officials said they were hopeful an agreement could be reached quickly as the Japanese position had shifted.

One reason for the change was the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which an international investigation concluded was caused by a North Korea-fired torpedo. That underscored serious security challenges in the region and the importance of the US military presence, the US officials said.

Hatoyama had pursued other alternatives, including moving some of the base functions to another southern Japanese island. But no one wanted it, and other options were impractical, raising questions on whether Hatoyama ever had much of a real plan when he had made his promise.

The failure to appease the people of Okinawa is likely to be Hatoyama’s biggest problem as Japan heads into elections, which must be held sometime in or around July.

Minoru Morita, who has written several books on Japanese politics, says the recent problems highlight the immaturity of the Democratic leaders, who seized power after near-constant rule by the Liberal Democrats since World War II.

“The Democrats didn’t think through what they could change and what they couldn’t change.’’ Morita said. “The base issue is an international agreement.’’

Analyst Eiken Itagaki was more sympathetic, noting that Hatoyama was the first prime minister to start an ambitious effort to reduce the US military presence in Japan.