TOKYO – Okinawa's governor vowed Monday to honor voters' wishes after being re-elected while campaigning for the removal of an unpopular U.S. Marine base from the island, an issue that has strained relations between Japan and the United States.
Hirokazu Nakaima's return to office Sunday will likely make it difficult for Tokyo to quickly move forward a planned relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, despite the central government's agreement with Washington. But with a more moderate stance than his challenger, there may still be a sliver of hope that a compromise can be worked out, officials said.
Nakaima pledged Monday to "ensure the Okinawan people's wishes."
Okinawa, home to about half of about 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, is a strategically important island close to Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and not far from the Korean peninsula.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said the U.S. military presence in Okinawa is a crucial deterrent for regional security threats, an argument driven home by North Korea's artillery strikes on a South Korean island, as well as worries over China's growing military power.
The base has been on Okinawa since 1945, and residents have long complained about it and dozens of other American military facilities on the island that produce aircraft noise and crime. A 2006 deal between the U.S. and Japan to move the base to a less crowded part of Okinawa has stalled because of public opposition. The controversy even toppled a prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, earlier this year.
Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa told reporters Monday it was a difficult situation, but there was hope it can be resolved. Subsidies from the central government may be used as compensation for Okinawa's burden, Kitazawa said.
"There is room for us to negotiate (a compromise)," he said.
The 71-year-old Nakaima beat challenger Yoichi Iha, 58, by less than 40,000 votes in a tight campaign in which the base relocation was a key issue. Nakaima once backed the relocation plan but now opposes it and wants to move the base off Okinawa. Iha wants the facility moved out of Japan entirely.
Nakaima's victory could hamper Kan's efforts to press ahead with the 2006 agreement because the construction of a new Futenma site needs the governor's approval. In an editorial Monday, the Yomiuri newspaper said Nakaima's previous support for the base meant there was still a chance for a breakthrough, but "we cannot expect a quick development."
A half-century security alliance allows the U.S. to station military forces in Japan, while guaranteeing the U.S. will defend Japan from any attack. But local opposition to the troops' presence is vocal.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said Sunday's election result was "an expression of the will of the Okinawan citizens," but the central government will press ahead with the plan to relocate the base elsewhere on the island.
The relocation of Futenma is part of a bigger plan to move more than 8,000 U.S. Marines off Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific island of Guam, on condition a replacement facility is built in another part of Okinawa.
Associated Press writers Jay Alabaster and Shino Yuasa contributed to this report.