Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Okinawa Mayor Race May Hold Key to U.S.-Japan Base Spat

The course of U.S.-Japan relations, and the future of the American military presence here, may come down to who wins the mayoral election in this island town hundreds of miles from Tokyo.

Ties between Japan's new center-left government and the Obama administration have become strained in recent weeks over intensifying debate about the U.S. military presence on the island of Okinawa. The sides agreed in 2006 to close an airbase in Okinawa's center and build a V-shaped runway for the Marine Corps outside this town on the island's scenic coast.

New Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who promised during his campaign that he wouldn't allow the new base, has resisted U.S. calls to move ahead by year's end on the troop relocation plans. Last week, he said his government would put off a decision on bases here until next year. That helped transform Nago City's Jan. 24 mayoral vote into a de facto referendum on the U.S. military in Japan. The current mayor wants to build the airfield. His challenger, who doesn't, has gained momentum from Mr. Hatoyama's no-bases stance.

Japan has long been a faithful U.S. ally, providing shelter and training grounds for tens of thousands of U.S. troops. Of the 33,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, around 21,000 are currently on Okinawa, a southern island two-thirds the size of Long Island. The base issue has long divided this town of 60,000. A majority of its voters rejected an airfield plan in a 1997 referendum. Since then, three mayors favoring the facility have won elections.

As in the rest of Okinawa, people here have long depended on U.S. bases to provide jobs and spur its economy. But they have borne the social costs, including a 2004 helicopter crash at an island university and the 1995 rape of a local schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.

The U.S. had said it wanted a decision on the bases by the end of the year. U.S. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Conway told reporters Tuesday that moving ahead on the base relocation is "absolutely vital to the defense that we provide for the entire region."
Unresolved, the issue could become knottier with time. In August's parliamentary elections, candidates opposing the facility won all of the four districts in Okinawa. Both the Nago election and a gubernatorial vote later in the year could result in the victory by candidates opposing the base, unifying Okinawa's voice against it.

That would hold up the 2006 accord, which calls for shutting down the unpopular Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in a crowded area in central Okinawa and moving 8,000 troops to Guam. The plan is predicated on building the new facility in Nago. Wall Street Journal

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