Japan's PM Faces Test Over U.S. Base On Okinawa The new Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, is facing the same problem that helped bring down his predecessor: What to do about thousands of U.S. troops on Okinawa? Residents say their small island bears a disproportionate burden of the continued American military presence in Japan.
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Japan's PM Faces Test Over U.S. Base On Okinawa

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Japan's PM Faces Test Over U.S. Base On Okinawa

Japan's PM Faces Test Over U.S. Base On Okinawa

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The Japanese government faces another big challenge. Earlier this month, the prime minister resigned as part of a controversy over the presence of thousands of American troops on the island of Okinawa. The prime minster had promised but failed to make them relocate. Now the new government is facing the same problem. NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Tokyo.

MIKE SHUSTER: Eighteen thousand Marines are based in Japan, many of them at the Marine Corp Air Station Futenma on Okinawa. Over the years, Okinawans have pressed harder and harder for the relocation of the base, away from their island.

After the opposition Democratic Party of Japan pulled off an historic electoral victory last year, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama got caught by promises to close the base he couldn't keep. He resigned after only eight months in office.

His successor, Naoto Kan, took office just a couple of weeks ago. And it's not at all clear how he will deal with the problem, says political analyst Masatoshi Honda of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

Mr. MASATOSHI HONDA (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies): He hasn't made any clear statement about Futenma, before and even right now. He just said he will follow the decision of the previous prime minister. So we cannot see what he really wants to do on this issue.

SHUSTER: The Marine base at Futenma has been a sore point between the U.S. and Japan for years. The noise of the base's aircraft and the rowdy and drunken behavior of some Marines have made the base unpopular - and not just this one base, but elsewhere in Japan, as well.

Several times in recent years, the U.S. offered a proposal to solve the problem, but it would still leave much of Futenma intact, says Koichi Nakano, a political analyst at Sophia University.

Professor KOICHI NAKANO (Political Science, Sophia University): The U.S. government have repeatedly said that they want to relocate to a place where they will be welcome. That welcome is simply not there in Okinawa at the moment.

SHUSTER: The U.S. says it will transfer 8,000 Marines to Guam and move a portion of the base itself to another part of Okinawa.

Prime Minister Kan has pledged to seek a solution that is in line with this offer, but he still faces overwhelming opposition on Okinawa, says Masatoshi Honda.

Mr. HONDA: So far, mayors, governors and local politicians in Okinawa, everybody are against the proposal of the new government. So he will be completely blocked by this.

SHUSTER: Last month in a protest, 17,000 Okinawans formed a human chain around the base. Part of the problem is the feeling on Okinawa, that its people bear a disproportionate burden of the continued American military presence in Japan. The small island of Okinawa represents less than one percent of Japan's population, but it maintains some three-quarters of the U.S. military forces here.

Last year, the Democratic Party of Japan overturned decades of political control by the Liberal Democratic Party, in part by pledging to seek a new, more equal relationship with the United States.

But when Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister, says Koichi Nakano, the U.S. treated him arrogantly.

Professor NAKANO: Initially, the American government came across as very high-handed and, in fact, even contemptuous of the change of government that took place in Japan - the historical alternation in power. So it came across as if it was neglecting the democratic will of the Japanese, and treating it basically as a dependency of the United States.

SHUSTER: The U.S. has maintained bases on Okinawa since the battle there in the spring of 1945. It was the bloodiest land battle of the war in the Pacific. The U.S. kept military control of Okinawa until 1972; 20 years after the rest of Japan regained its sovereignty. This history has a lot to do with the sensitivity of all sides in the current controversy.

The Futenma affair has sparked a debate in Japan about the ongoing presence of U.S. forces. In a recent interview with the BBC, the current foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, speaking through an interpreter, pointed out that Japan's constitution limits how its self-defense forces can be used, and how the continued presence of U.S. forces acts as a deterrent to potential conflicts with North Korea or China.

Foreign Minister KATSUYA OKADA (Japan): (Through Translator) For Japan's own security and to maintain the peace and stability in Asia as well, we do need U.S. forces in Japan. And that position is not going to change, even with the change in government.

SHUSTER: But this is not a position that all Japanese support. In order to handle this matter successfully, the new prime minister, Naoto Kan, will have to explain that need better, to the Japanese people, say some analysts.

Professor NARUSHIGE MICHISHITA (Security and International Studies Program, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies): He has to address the issue of defending Japan.

SHUSTER: Narushige Michishita is a specialist in strategic and defense studies. He is sympathetic to the U.S. position, but he believes it will be difficult for Prime Minister Kan to convince the Japanese, especially the people of Okinawa, of the dangers Japan may face that require a large U.S. military presence.

Professor MICHISHITA: In a way, he has been a little bit exaggerating the need for U.S. troops in Okinawa, for the defense of Japan, at the current moment.

SHUSTER: So it is not clear whether the new Japanese government can be any more successful than its predecessor, in handling the issue of the U.S. Marine base at Futenma on Okinawa.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tokyo.


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