Japan PM faces island rebuff over U.S. base move
OKINAWA, Japan |
OKINAWA, Japan (Reuters) - Angry residents of Okinawa rejected on Tuesday a plan by Japan's prime minister to keep at least part of a controversial U.S. base on the island, in what could prove a new blow to support ahead of an election.
The feud over relocating the Futenma U.S. Marine base has shaken ties with Washington and contributed to Yukio Hatoyama's tumbling support rates in the run-up to an upper house election his ruling Democratic Party must win to avoid policy deadlock.
Trailed by anti-base demonstrators on his first visit to subtropical Okinawa since taking office last year, Hatoyama told local people in a series of meetings he wanted them to accept a plan that would keep some of Futenma's facilities on the island.
A grim-faced Hatoyama apologized repeatedly for the burden it would cause but his apparent decision to drop an election pledge to move the base off the island sparked shock and anger.
"Almost everyone I spoke to told me they wanted the base moved off the island," Hatoyama told reporters near the end of a busy day of consultations and site inspections.
"I once more realized the harshness of people's feelings. It was tough, but I am glad I came because I had the chance to exchange opinions with local people," he said.
Though nearing a self-imposed end-of-May deadline for resolving the row, Hatoyama did not give details of the government proposal but said moving the whole base off the island had proved difficult from a deterrence perspective.
Some analysts say Hatoyama's Okinawa trip may be an attempt to prepare the ground for dropping his May deadline without facing pressure to resign.
"What I think he's doing is trying to create an excuse for extending the deadline," said political commentator Minoru Morita. "If everyone, including the United States, says the end of May is impossible, he can change it and make it look as though he's going along with their wishes."
Susumu Inamine, mayor of the city of Nago, which includes Henoko bay which was proposed as the Futenma relocation site, told Hatoyama moving the base within Okinawa was not feasible.
"We absolutely cannot accept such a plan," he said in a televised meeting with the premier amid loud demonstrations.
Okinawa, a popular holiday destination with clear oceans and white sand beaches, hosts about half the 49,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan. Resentment of the noise, crime and accidents associated with the military presence flares periodically.
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-center 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.
The United States wants to go ahead with a 2006 agreement to shift Futenma's facilities to a site off Camp Schwab, another Marine base in a more remote part of Okinawa.
Domestic media say Hatoyama wants to compromise by shifting some Futenma Marines to the tiny island of Tokunoshima, northeast of Okinawa, while altering plans for a new runway off Camp Schwab to reduce the environmental impact.
The top U.S. envoy on the issue said in a newspaper interview last month he had received a "serious" proposal on Futenma that could move talks forward, but Washington has said it will not accept a plan opposed by local people.
(Writing by Isabel Reynolds; Editing by Paul Tait)
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