TOKYO – TOKYO (AP) — Tens of thousands of Okinawan residents and leaders demanded a U.S. Marine base be moved off the island at a mass rally Sunday, inflamed by speculation the government may finally accept a plan to merely relocate it to another part of the southern Japanese island.
Okinawans have long complained of the burden of hosting most of 47,000 American troops in Japan under a security pact. Okinawa was under U.S. occupation until 1972 and many residents resent the U.S. military presence as legacy of Japan's World War II defeat.
Tokyo and Washington agreed in 2006 to move sprawling Futenma Marine Corps air field to a less crowded part of Okinawa and to move 8,000 of its Marines to Guam. But when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took power last September he said he would not honor the deal struck by his political rivals and promised to find a site off Okinawa for the troops.
"We will not allow the base to stay here," Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima told the cheering crowd. "We want the Hatoyama government to keep its promise."
Hatoyama has delayed a decision in the face of rejection by potential relocation sites.
About 90,000 people from across the island gathered in the town of Yomitan, carrying banners and placards with anti-U.S. military slogans and demanding Hatoyama keep his promise and move the Futenma base outside the island.
The protesters were particularly upset as media reports said earlier Sunday that Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada had told U.S. Ambassador John Roos last week that Tokyo was moving to accept much of the 2006 deal.
Okada acknowledged he met with Roos, but denied he made such concessions as reported.
"No to a new base! No to a relocation within the island!" Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine said, criticizing Hatoyama's government for "playing with the Okinawans' feelings."
Hatoyama's attempt to please both Washington and Okinawa has apparently frustrated both. His perceived lack of leadership and indecisiveness have caused support for his Cabinet to fall to around 30 percent in recent public polls, down sharply from around 70 percent last year.
Hatoyama has also faced growing pressure from Washington to observe the 2006 agreement, which U.S. officials say is the only "viable" option.
But he has been unable to obtain consent for any potential sites or even enter talks with local officials. Hatoyama on Saturday denied accepting the earlier agreement and that he would closely monitor Sunday's rally.
Hatoyama, who has promised to resolve the dispute by the end of May, told Friday's parliamentary session that he would "stake his job" to do so. Opposition leaders have demanded his resignation if he fails to meet the deadline.
Reported options include a temporarily transfer of some of Futenma's heliport functions to nearby Camp Schwab or reclaiming land off the U.S. Navy's White Beach facility on Okinawa.
The government is also considering Tokunoshima island, north of Okinawa, but residents held a massive protest this month and local officials rejected Tokyo's request for talks.