TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Sunday abandoned a pledge to move a U.S. air base off
Okinawa, fanning local anger, upsetting a coalition partner and risking
another blow to his ratings ahead of a mid-year election.
Hatoyama said he had concluded the base should be shifted to the Henoko area of the northern Okinawa city of
Nago -- largely in line with a 2006 U.S-Japan agreement. But the
governor of Okinawa quickly said it would be tough to accept such a
Voter perception that Hatoyama has mishandled the Futenma air base row has eroded government
support, threatening the ruling Democratic Party's chances in the upper
house election, which it must win to avoid policy deadlock.
Hatoyama has set himself an end-May deadline to resolve the problem, which has frayed ties with Tokyo's key security
ally Washington just as the two countries confront security challenges
such as an unpredictable North Korea and a rising China.
"Concerns and anger that people in Okinawa have are understandable," Hatoyama told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu
Nakaima in a meeting at the Okinawa prefecture office, as a crowd of
protesters stood outside carrying signs opposing the plan and shouting
"But as shown in recent developments in the Korean peninsula, uncertainty remains over security
in East Asia and we cannot let the deterrence of U.S. military forces in
"It is a heart-rending decision for me," Hatoyama added and apologized to the
people of Okinawa, for failing to succeed in shifting the base off the
In a brief visit to Japan on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pyongyang's sinking of a South Korean ship had underscored the importance of the alliance.
But the governor of Okinawa, host to about half the U.S. forces in Japan, expressed disappointment.
"The idea of moving the base to Henoko is quite regrettable and (accepting it) is extremely tough," Nakaima told Hatoyama in the meeting, aired live on nationwide TV.
In the campaign that swept his party to power last year, Hatoyama had
raised hopes the U.S. Marine base could be moved off Okinawa, but
Washington has sought to stick to the 2006 deal to move the facility to
Hatoyama later shifted gears, saying some Marines had to stay to deter threats, a move that
outraged many Okinawans and upset a small ruling party, the Social
"It is the worst possible case. He has made enemies of the governor of Okinawa, the
Democrats in Okinawa, his coalition partner and the opposition, and put
ties with America first," said independent political analyst Hirotaka
"But once he promises this to the United States, even if Okinawa objects, ultimately, they will have to move it to Henoko."
In a separate meeting, Nago City Mayor Susumu Inamine, elected in January
on an anti-base platform, told Hatoyama that the plan was "absolutely
"I cannot help feeling angry as this betrays feelings of people in Nago and Okinawa,
who have called for the base to be moved out of the prefecture," Inamine
Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Social Democratic Party, told reporters she opposed
Hatoyama's plan. But she also said no decision has been made on whether
her party would leave the coalition government over the issue, Kyodo
news agency reported.
The tiny Social Democratic Party's votes are no longer needed to pass bills
smoothly in parliament, but a rift in the coalition ahead of the upper
house election would be ill-timed.
Japanese media said a formal agreement with the United States on the plan would
be announced on Friday, when Hatoyama is expected to give a news
conference. Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said he would
visit Washington on Monday to further discuss the plan with his
counterpart, Robert Gates.
Details of the new deal with Washington, including the exact location of a new
runway and the construction method, are to be worked out before
President Barack Obama visits Japan in November for an Asia-Pacific
leaders summit, Japanese media said.
Hatoyama said the government would continue to negotiate with the United States
to lessen the burden on Okinawa, where residents have long resented
bearing what they feel is an unfair burden for maintaining the security
"I don't consider this as the end."