TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan offered apologies and financial aid to Okinawa residents on Friday as he sought support for keeping a U.S. airbase on the island, but the regional governor stood firm in opposing it.
Ties between Tokyo and its close security ally, Washington, frayed after Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took office last year and then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama sought to keep a pledge to move the U.S. Marines’ Futenma airbase off Okinawa, host to about half of the nearly 50,000 U.S. forces in Japan.
Japan and the United States agreed in May, however, to stick to a 2006 deal to keep the base on the island while moving it to a less populous area.
Kan, whose public support ratings have sunk to nearly 20 percent since he took office in June, needs some policy successes to bolster his popularity and help save his job.
But the relocation plan faces stiff opposition from local residents.
“It may not be the best (plan) but it is better when you consider the practicality,” Kan told Okinawa’s newly re-elected governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, after apologizing for Hatoyama’s broken promise.
Kan also told Nakaima that the central government was preparing special funds to help develop Okinawa, still one of Japan’s poorest prefectures despite years of government spending.
Nakaima last month defeated a rival who more firmly rejected the May plan, raising hopes that the door was still open for talks with the central government.
But Friday, Nakaima held out little hope.
“It’s a mistaken idea,” Nakaima told reporters after meeting Kan. “In Okinawa, there’s no ‘good’ or ‘better’. Anywhere in the prefecture would be a ‘no’.”
The row over Futenma has threatened to undermine the 50-year-old U.S.-Japan alliance, but both sides appear keen to soothe tensions as they work together to respond to regional tensions and threats, including an unpredictable North Korea.
Both Japan and the United States have condemned the North’s deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island last month and share wariness over a rising China’s military modernization.
“The Japan-U.S. alliance will remain indispensable to secure the peace and safety of our country,” the government said on Friday in a sweeping update of defense policies that refocuses Japan’s military to the southwest, where it shares a maritime border with China.
The policy statement, however, added that it was necessary to reduce the burden on communities hosting U.S. forces, whose residents often associate the bases with accidents, crime and pollution.
Reporting by Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Edmund Klamann