Okinawans angry as Japan PM flipflops on US base

During campaign that swept his party to power, Japan`s PM had raised hopes that US base could be shifted off Okinawa.

Updated: May 14, 2010, 14:37 PM IST

Okinawa: Kazufumi Ota admits he was sceptical when Japan`s then-opposition Democratic Party leader promised last year to try to move a US airbase off his home island of Okinawa, host to half the US forces in the country.

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 centre 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 US 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 realise 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 US 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 US 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.

Bureau Report