May 24, 2010 / 6:48 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Japan PM points to North Korea to explain US base plan

 * Hatoyama apologises for breaking his word
 * Okinawa governor says tough to accept plan
 * Clinton commends difficult decision
 (Adds U.S.-Japan defense chiefs meeting, paragraph 13)
 By Linda Sieg
 TOKYO, May 24 (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yukio
Hatoyama said on Monday tension on the Korean peninsula
underlined the importance of tight U.S.-Japan ties and was key
to his decision to keep a controversial U.S. airbase on
 Analysts said, however, that while North Korea had given
the struggling Japanese leader a good excuse for backtracking
on a pledge to try to move the Marines' base off the southern
Japanese island, the plan faces huge hurdles given harsh local
 Voter perception that Hatoyama has mishandled the dispute
has frayed ties with Washington and eroded government support,
threatening the ruling Democratic Party's chances in a midyear
upper house election it must win to avoid policy deadlock.
 Apologising for breaking his word, a subdued Hatoyama told
Okinawa's governor on Sunday he had concluded the Futenma base
should be shifted to the Henoko area of the northern Okinawa
city of Nago -- largely in line with a 2006 U.S.-Japan deal.
  Graphic on Japan voter support:
  Graphic on voting intentions:
  For more stories on Japanese politics, click     [ID:nPOLJP]
  For complete North Korea coverage, click        [ID:nNORKOR]
But Okinawa's governor said it would be tough to accept the
plan, which also flies in the face of demands by a tiny
coalition partner to shift Futenma off the island.
 "I decided that it is of utmost importance that we place
the Japan-U.S. relationship on a solid relationship of mutual
trust, considering the current situation in the Korean
peninsula and in Asia," Hatoyama told reporters on Monday.
 In the campaign that swept the Democrats to power last
year, Hatoyama had raised hopes the Marine base could be moved
off Okinawa, host to about half the U.S. forces in Japan.
 But Washington sought to stick to the 2006 deal to move the
facility from the crowded central city of Ginowan to Nago.
 Hatoyama later backtracked, saying some Marines had to stay
to deter threats. During a visit to Beijing on Monday, U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended Hatoyama for
making "the difficult but nevertheless correct decision."
 Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano on Monday held out
hope that Okinawans, many of whom resent bearing a big share of
the burden for the U.S.-Japan alliance, could yet be persuaded
to accept the deal.
 Shifting Futenma's functions elsewhere is a condition for
moving up to 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam.
 "There will be criticism of course. But if the actual
burden is reduced, we will have achieved something for the
Okinawan people," Hirano said. "If people understand this was
done for the sake of Japan's security ... this will be seen as
 Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa heads to the
Pentagon on Tuesday to discuss the relocation plan with his
U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon
 Analysts said, however, it was not clear whether the plan
could be implemented, whatever Washington and Tokyo agreed.
 Anti-base activists plan a rally to oppose the plan on May
28, the same day media say the two governments will announce a
bilateral deal and Hatoyama will hold a news conference to
explain the deal to the public.
 "The easiest part to solve is between the U.S. and Japanese
governments," Keio University professor Yasunori Sone said.
 "But the coalition problem remains, and most difficult of
all is (persuading) the people of Okinawa," he said. "The
situation is far more difficult than it was last year and it
will be almost impossible to persuade the Okinawans."
 (Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds and Chisa Fujioka
in Tokyo, Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Jeremy
Laurence and Will Dunham)

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