Japan opposition's U.S. military remarks draw criticism

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s main opposition party leader, who could become prime minister this year, has drawn criticism from the government for saying that he wants a smaller U.S. military presence in the country.

Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa said earlier this week that only the U.S. 7th Fleet should be based in Japan, currently host to about 47,000 U.S. military personnel.

Japan’s top government spokesman criticized Ozawa’s remark on Thursday.

“The Japanese government thinks that to limit it just to the 7th Fleet is unrealistic,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said in a news conference on Thursday.

“Is it appropriate for the Democratic Party leader, who is advocating for an administration change, to have such an idea under the current U.S.-Japan security alliance?”

Ozawa has stressed the need for a Japanese security policy more independent of its closest ally, the United States, a stance which some experts say is making Washington nervous.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, comprising around 70 ships and 300 aircraft, operates in the Asia-Pacific region. Twenty-one ships are forward deployed to Japan and Guam and over 10,000 personnel of the 7th Fleet have their home ports in Japan.

Kevin Maher, the consul general in Okinawa, southern Japan, said earlier this week the security environment in the region was not easy and Ozawa did not understand the need for the air force and marines, Japanese media reported. Okinawa hosts the biggest chunk of U.S. troops stationed in Japan.

Ozawa told reporters earlier this week: “If Japan is prepared to take care on its own issues that are relevant to itself, then there is no need for the United States to forward deploy to such an extent in Japan.”

Polls show the Democrats may topple the ruling coalition that has ruled Japan for almost all of the past 50 years.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Ozawa during her trip to Asia, where Ozawa told her the U.S.-Japan alliance should be an equal partnership.

Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Valerie Lee