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Japan party threatens to leave government over U.S. base

TOKYO (Reuters) - The leader of Japan’s tiny Social Democratic Party threatened on Thursday to leave the ruling coalition if her views on a U.S. military base were ignored, the latest sign of strains complicating policy decisions.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has formed an awkward coalition with the pacifist Social Democrats, whose support he needs to pass legislation, but whose stance on Tokyo’s security alliance with Washington clashes with that of many in his own party.

Japan is under Washington pressure to implement a plan to shift a U.S. Marine base from the center of a city on Okinawa to a more remote part of the southern island. But the Social Democratic Party (SDP) supports the view of local people who want it moved off Okinawa.

SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima told party members that if the government decided to go ahead with the existing plan, “the Social Democratic Party and I will have to make an important decision.”

Hatoyama, who heads the main coalition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, said he would take the SDP’s views seriously and that he does not necessarily aim to reach a conclusion by year-end, risking further irritating the United States as he tries to keep the coalition together.

“As I have been saying, I have never said that this must be solved within this year, but I would like to rush as much as possible,” he told reporters.

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Fukushima announced the previous day that she would run for the leadership of the SDP again in this month’s party election.

Media reports say she will likely stay on, as an SDP lawmaker from Okinawa who was seen as a possible candidate said on Thursday he will not be running after meeting Fukushima. He said he shares her strong view on the U.S. base issue.

The United States has repeatedly urged Japan to reach a quick conclusion on the position of the base in line with a 2006 agreement made after years of what one U.S. Defense official called “painful” negotiation.

Failure to implement the deal would hinder a wide-ranging realignment of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, including a plan to move up to 8,000 Marines to the Pacific island of Guam.

Hatoyama will have no need of the coalition if his Democrats win a majority in the upper house election set for mid-2010.

Though Hatoyama has a large majority in the more powerful lower house of parliament after his landslide election win in August, he needs the support of the SDP and another tiny coalition partner to pass legislation in the upper house.

Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Jerry Norton