TOKYO – Japan is still seeking to move a contentious American military base off the southern island of Okinawa and will finalize its proposal for Washington by the end of March, the prime minister said Friday.
Officials have considered various options but will boil them down to one proposal to resolve the dispute by May as promised, Yukio Hatoyama told a news conference.
The sprawling U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma air field has become a contentious issue between the allies.
Okinawans have long protested the heavy U.S. military presence on the island, which hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan under a security pact.
To lighten Okinawa's load, Tokyo and Washington in 2006 agreed to move the Futenma air field to a less crowded part of the island, and move 8,000 Marines from the island to the Pacific island of Guam.
But Hatoyama's coalition government, which came to power last September, has been reviewing the relocation site agreed by the previous conservative government, and is divided over calls for the base to move off the island altogether.
"We will have to limit our proposal to one, or our negotiations won't work," Hatoyama said Friday.
"Considering the burden on Okinawa, I would like to seek ways as much as possible to relocate (the base) outside" the island, Hatoyama said. "I'll do everything I can."
He refused to disclose details on alternative locations that were under consideration.
Earlier Friday, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada met with U.S. Ambassador John Roos to give him an update on Japan's progress on Futenma, while Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa flew to Okinawa to meet with local officials.
Okada did not give details of his talks with Roos.
Kitazawa told Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima that the government is now focusing on a plan to move the Futenma functions to several different locations, including outside of Okinawa, rather than entirely relocating it to one place. There is "almost zero possibility" of moving the base to off the coast of Henoko near the city of Nago in northern Okinawa, as agreed to in the 2006 pact, Kitazawa said.
Reported options being studied include a plan to temporarily transfer some of Futenma's heliport functions to nearby Camp Schwab by adding a new helipad there. The government is also considering reclaiming land for locating the base off the coast of the U.S. Navy's White Beach facility on the island's southeastern coast, or shifting the base to an island off the coast of Kyushu island.