Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Military base row threatens to overshadow US Obama visit to Japan

Military base row threatens to overshadow US Obama visit to Japan

Updated October 26, 2009 13:06:49

Japan's new Democrats government is facing its first major test as it finds itself squeezed between the Obama Administration in Washington and the people of the southern islands of Okinawa.

At the heart of the row is a U-S air base which the Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had suggested could be moved. But the US has rejected any talk of re-locating the base outside of Okinawa, and the row is casting a shadow over the US President's visit to Japan next month.

Presenter: Mark Willacy, North Asia correspondent
Speaker: Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary; Yukio Hatoyama, Japanese Prime Minister

Listen: Windows Media

MARK WILLACY: (SFX sound of jet plane)The United States has had air bases on Okinawa since 1945, when it occupied the island chain after a savage 82-day battle. There are now 14 US bases on Okinawa.

One of the biggest is Futenma, host of the 4,000-strong 1st Marine Aircraft Wing which is located right in the heart of the city of 90,000 people.

(Sound of Japanese protestors)

Residents have long complained of noise and air pollution and threats to public safety from fighter jets, transport planes and attack helicopters - a protest which intensified after the crash of a marine corps helicopter into an Okinawa University five years ago.

During the election campaign two months ago the Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama spoke of moving Futenma out of Okinawa - an idea embraced by residents of the main island.

"I'd prefer to move Futenma right out of Okinawa," says this woman. "There are too many US bases and personnel here as it is," she says.

"The Government must not ignore calls from the people of Okinawa to remove this base," says another resident. "It must go" she says.

But the United States Marines aren't going anywhere. While Washington has signed an agreement with Japan to move the Futenma base to another part of Okinawa, the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has rejected any talk of shifting the base out of the island altogether. And Mr Gates is prepared to play hardball with the Japanese.

ROBERT GATES: Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no consolidation of forces and return of land in Okinawa.

MARK WILLACY: This all casts a bit of a shadow over the visit to Japan next month by US President Barack Obama. Washington would like to see this spat resolved before Mr Obama's arrives but Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is refusing to be rushed.

(Hatoyama speaking)

"We won't have an agreement before Mr Obama's visit," says the Prime Minister. "We must take heed of the feelings of the Okinawan people," he adds.

Yukio Hatoyama has vowed to pursue a more equal relationship with Japan's closest ally but it seems on the issue of Okinawa, Washington will not budge.

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