Residents of Okinawa protested on Tuesday a retreat by Japan's prime minister to move unwanted US airbase entirely off the island, backtracking on a key election pledge after months of pressures by Washington.
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.
Hatoyama had frozen a 2006 agreement with the U.S. on moving Futenma to a less crowded part of the island, saying instead he wanted to move it off Okinawa, or even outside the country. He has set an end-of-May deadline to announce a decision on the thorny issue that has strained ties with Washington.
"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.
"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.
Under the latest compromise plan -- not formally announced by the government but widely reported in domestic media -- Japan is proposing to stick with the original plan, with some modifications.
Futenma would now be moved, as originally agreed, to the coastal Henoko area of Nago city near the US base of Camp Schwab, but its runways would be built on stilts rather than landfill to help protect coral reefs.
About 1,000 US Marines and their helicopter operations would be moved to the remote island of Tokunoshima, 200 kilometres (120 miles) northeast of Okinawa, although the plan has been met by protests on that island too.
The United States, whose envoys were discussing the issue with Japanese senior officials in Tokyo on Tuesday, is reportedly unhappy with a plan to split up Futenma's Marine forces as operationally difficult.
"Shame on you!"
On Tuesday, demonstrators gathered at each stage of Hatoyama's tour, waving placards demanding he keep his promises.
"From before the election, he was promising to move the base out," said 48-year-old Chikako Toguchi of Nago on Okinawa, referring to last year's general election.
"That's why I and a lot of my friends voted for the Democrats. If it turns out he just said that to win the election, he has made fools of the Okinawans," she said.
Another woman shouted and jostled with bodyguards as she tried to hand Hatoyama a letter at a public meeting in a primary school just outside the gates of the Futenma base, whose city-centre location is considered a danger to local people.
Local residents shouted "Shame on you!" and "Have you no principles?" as he left the school gymnasium.
Hatoyama's trip came as Japanese and U.S. officials began working-level talks on the base problem in Tokyo on Tuesday.
AgenciesLast Mod: 04 Mayıs 2010, 14:24