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Okinawans angry as Japan PM flipflops on U.S. base

OKINAWA, Japan (Reuters) - Kazufumi Ota admits he was skeptical when Japan’s then-opposition Democratic Party leader promised last year to try to move a U.S. airbase off his home island of Okinawa, host to half the U.S. forces in the country.

Protestors demonstrate against U.S. bases in Okinawa in front of the Okinawa prefectural government offices, in Naha, on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa May 4, 2010. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

But that doesn’t make Ota any less angry at Yukio Hatoyama for backtracking on the pledge now that he is prime minister.

“No matter how much the people of Okinawa ask, in the end, nothing changes,” said Ota, 31, during a break at a shopping center in the island’s capital of Naha. “I voted for the Democrats but in the end, they were only paying lip service.”

During the campaign that swept his party to power last year, Hatoyama had raised hopes that the U.S. Marines’ Futenma airbase could be shifted off Okinawa, despite a 2006 deal with Washington to move the facility from a crowded city to a less populous site.

But with an end of May deadline for resolving the feud looming, Hatoyama shifted gears, saying he had come to realize that some Marines must stay on the island to deter threats.

Hatoyama has set himself the Herculean task of finding a solution that satisfies Washington’s strategic demands while also gaining the understanding of Okinawans and local residents in any potential sites where some Futenma functions might be relocated.

On Friday he said he was sticking to the deadline, though a day earlier he vowed to keep trying after the deadline passed.

Hatoyama’s perceived mishandling of the feud has eroded voter support ahead of a mid-year upper house poll that the Democrats need to win to avoid policy stalemate as Japan struggles to keep a recovery on track while reining in a massive public debt.

Attitudes toward U.S. military bases are far from simple among residents of Okinawa, a subtropical island 1,600 km (1,000 miles) south of Tokyo that was the site of a bloody World War Two battle and occupied by the United States from 1945 to 1972.

Some want the U.S. military to depart altogether from the island, an independent kingdom in the 15th and 16th centuries and now a popular resort whose culture was forged by migration from China, Southeast Asia, Polynesia and Japan.

“During the war, Okinawa became a bulwark for the defense of Japan and many people were sacrificed,” said Masahide Ota, who fought as a student in the Battle of Okinawa, in which some 140,000 islanders died during almost three months of fighting.

“We don’t want Okinawa to become a battlefield again,” said Ota, now a spry 84, who was governor in 1996 when Tokyo and Washington agreed to close Futenma -- but only if a replacement site could be found elsewhere on the island.

“If you speak of deterrence, who is defending whom and from what?” added Ota. “They say it is for the sake of Japan’s national interests, but if so the burden should be shared among all the people. Instead only Okinawa is being sacrificed.”


Hatoyama’s campaign pledge has breathed new life into the anti-base movement. Last month, tens of thousands of Okinawans rallied to demand the premier keep his promise and activists plan to form a human chain around Futenma airbase on Sunday.

“I live near Futenma and my parents live near Kadena (U.S. Air Force base) ... There is nothing good about the bases,” said Saneaki Tsuha, 24, who works for an insurance firm in Naha.

The rekindled anger has both anti-base activists and supporters of a U.S. presence worried what will happen if an accident or crime occurs, such as the rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen that inflamed Okinawan outrage in 1995.

Still, some Okinawans back the U.S. bases, either because of the jobs they provide or from concern about strategic threats from a rising China and unpredictable North Korea.

“It all depends on how you view China,” said one Okinawan businessman who declined to be identified.

“If you think China is a threat, you need the bases.”

Forty-three percent of Okinawans would like to see U.S. forces withdraw from the island altogether, but 42 percent merely want to see the U.S. military presence reduced, according to a survey by the daily Asahi newspaper published on Friday.

Relocating Futenma is a prerequisite for implementing a plan to shift up to 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam.

But Hatoyama’s proposal to build a runway on piles in the pristine waters off Nago City in northern Okinawa rather than on a landfill as proposed in the 2006 deal, while shifting some functions elsewhere in Japan, has scant support locally.

Seventy-six percent of Okinawans oppose the new plan, the Asahi survey showed. Even Nago residents who backed the 2006 plan in hopes of profits from the construction work dislike the new scheme, said to be technologically too tough for local firms.

Whatever their position on the bases, many Okinawans are fed up with Hatoyama’s handling of the touchy topic, with the Asahi poll showing almost two out of three respondents disapproved.

“If the bases are necessary, he should explain clearly why they have to be on Okinawa,” said Naomi Taira, a 43-year-old healthcare worker waiting for a bus in Naha.

“He is not showing leadership.”

Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee