A US-Japan row became more complicated Thursday when a junior partner in Japan’s coalition government said an American airbase should be moved off southern Okinawa to a more remote islet or to Guam.
Washington-Tokyo ties have been strained since prime minister Yukio Hatoyama took office two months ago pledging to review the previously agreed relocation of the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station within Okinawa island.
The base, unpopular because of aircraft noise and the risk of accidents, is due to be moved from an urban to a coastal area by 2014 — but Hatoyama has said the base may have to be moved off Okinawa or even out of Japan.
His junior partners the pacifist Social Democrats — whose support Hatoyama’s centre-left party needs to pass laws in parliament smoothly — have long opposed the heavy US military presence on the southern island.
On Thursday they proposed the base be moved to the US territory of Guam, or to the remote Japanese islet of Iwo To, formerly called Iwo Jima, the site of heavy battles between American and Japanese forces in World War II.
“The Social Democrats today decided that we demand the government study the possibility of relocating the Futenma airbase to Guam or to Iwo To,” a party official told AFP.
Iwo To islet is about 1,200 kilometres (740 miles) south of Tokyo.
Hatoyama — who last week hosted Barack Obama at the start of the US president’s maiden tour to Asia — has said he needs time to find a solution, and that he may reach a conclusion by the end of this year.
His Foreign minister Katsuya Okada and Defence minister Toshimi Kitazawa, however, have said moving the base off Okinawa would be difficult, signalling widening differences within the cabinet.
Under the 2006 accord, agreed by the previous conservative governments in both countries, the aircraft functions of Futenma base would be moved by 2014 from urban Ginowan to a base to be built in coastal Nago.
Okinawans have long complained about the burden of hosting more than half of the 47,000 US troops based in the country, and residents have been angered especially by crimes committed by American servicemen in the past.
Meanwhile Japan’s government said Thursday it may urge the United States to step up cooperation in a police investigation of a deadly hit-and-run accident on Okinawa in which investigators have contacted a US soldier for questioning.
The US serviceman, who had responded to earlier police questioning, has recently refused to meet with Japanese police in connection with the death of a 66-year-old man, top government spokesman Hirofumi Hirano told a press briefing.