Japan’s prime minister Naoto Kan pledged Wednesday to reduce “the burden” of US bases on Okinawa as the island marked 65 years since the end of a major World War II battle there.
Kan was on his first visit to the southern island since he took office on June 8 to attend a ceremony to remember the 83-day bloodbath which killed more than 200,000 people, half of them civilians, in 1945.
His predecessor Yukio Hatoyama stepped down this month largely because he had mishandled a dispute over the relocation of an unpopular US airbase on the island, triggering local protests and souring ties with Washington.
Kan noted that the US presence on Okinawa had contributed to peace in the Asia-Pacific region but added: “I promise to continue to seriously tackle the reduction of the burden in connection with US military bases.”
“On behalf of all of our people, I apologise for the burden,” Kan said.
Futenma and other US bases were established as American forces took the island in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Towards the end, Japanese troops forced many residents to kill themselves “honourably” rather than face capture, according to local accounts.
“I sincerely express my heartfelt sorrow for the dead,” Kan told an audience of more than 5,000 Okinawans who held a minute-long prayer.
After the war, Okinawa stayed under US occupation until 1972 and has since then remained the strategic US military keystone in the Pacific.
The world’s two largest economies have been key security partners, and Wednesday also marked the 50th anniversary of the Japanese ratification of a US-Japan security treaty which both sides had signed on January 19, 1960.
Anti-base protests have flared in recent months after Hatoyama first pledged to move the contentious Futenma airbase off Okinawa, than reneged on the promise following protests from the United States.
Kan has pledged to follow an accord reached in May under which the base would be relocated within Okinawa as first agreed in 2006, from a crowded city area to the island’s coastal Henoko region.
“A reduction in the burden of US military bases is not a problem for Okinawa alone,” Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima told the ceremony.
“It is a task for every single individual of the country. I hope that a visible reduction of Okinawa’s excessive burden will be achieved.”