March 21, 2006

Small changes possible in Okinawa US base plan

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's defense minister and prime
minister agreed on Tuesday that small changes may be possible
in a plan to relocate a U.S. Marine base on the southern
Japanese island of Okinawa that has sparked local anger.

The plan to relocate the Futenma Marine Corps air base was
contained in an October deal between Tokyo and Washington on
relocating the approximately 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan, part
of U.S. efforts to transform American forces globally into a
more flexible force.

Opposition from the city of Nago, site of the Futenma
relocation, and other Japanese communities worried about noise,
accidents and crime associated with the U.S. bases is delaying
efforts to finalize the overall realignment plan by the end of

Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga met with Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday morning to discuss the Futenma
relocation, and the two agreed that minor changes may be
possible in an attempt to make the plan more agreeable to local
residents, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

"Our discussions will be centered on the government's
original plan, and that will be the basis for our talks,"
Nukaga was quoted by the spokesman as saying.

"But that doesn't mean that we absolutely can't make any
concessions. We need a plan that can be carried out," he added.

The spokesman declined to comment on what the changes, if
any, might include.

Nukaga was set to meet the mayor of Nago later on Tuesday.

According to Japanese media reports, a senior lawmaker in
the ruling coalition indicated on Sunday that changes in the
plan were possible.

But government officials on Monday denied this, reiterating
that the government would stick to its original plan while
trying to win the understanding of local residents.

Resentment of the U.S. military presence runs deep in
Okinawa, where the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S.
servicemen set off huge demonstrations and triggered calls to
lessen the American presence on the island, one of Japan's
poorest areas and host to about half the U.S. military presence
in the country.

Many Okinawa residents want the Futenma facility moved off
the island altogether, but opposition to the U.S. military
presence has grown elsewhere as well.

On March 12, in a rare referendum, residents of the western
city of Iwakuni voted overwhelmingly against a plan to expand a
nearby U.S. Marine base, another facet of the realignment plan.

According to an opinion poll conducted at the weekend by
the liberal Asahi Shimbun daily, a majority of Japanese believe
that local sentiment should be considered in any relocation

Sixty-three percent of respondents said that local approval
should be a pre-requisite for any relocation, against 27
percent who said that such relocation should be carried out
according to the judgment of the national government.

Japan is also being asked to foot a large part of the bill
to move several thousand Marines from Okinawa to Guam, which 78
percent of respondents said they "could not understand."