GINOWAN, Okinawa — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has given up on his self-imposed deadline for getting approval from the U.S. and local governments on an alternate plan to move Marine air operations from the middle of this urban center.
Instead, Hatoyama told reporters Monday in Tokyo that he will have a plan but no final agreement with all sides by the end of May to move the air units to a new facility. He met with his top ministers Monday to hash out a proposal to offer U.S. officials at talks scheduled to begin Wednesday in Washington.
Hatoyama is receiving pressure from Japanese politicians, including some in his own party, to resign if he does not fulfill a pledge he made during Lower House elections last summer to find a way to move the Marine air units from Okinawa. Last week, he visited Okinawa and apologized for being unable to keep his pledge and said he was looking at modifying a 2006 realignment agreement with the U.S.
Instead of building an air facility with two runways on the lower part of Camp Schwab and reclaimed land in Oura Bay, he is reportedly considering just one runway built on pilings over the water, hoping that would allay some environmental concerns.
Also some training for the helicopter units would reportedly be moved to Tokunoshima, an island 125 miles northeast of Okinawa.
Local governments on both islands have been adamantly opposed to the plan and U.S. officials have frowned on the idea.
Hatoyama’s chief minister for Okinawa affairs, Seiji Maehara, said Sunday that Tokyo needs more time to persuade Okinawa and Tokunoshima to accept Hatoyama’s proposal.
“We will have to keep making efforts to obtain agreement for the direction we make and respond to the feelings of the people of Okinawa, who are forced to shoulder the burden (of hosting U.S. bases),” Maehara said. “We will also explain everything thoroughly to the United States.”
Japanese media, citing unnamed government sources, report Hatoyama’s plan also involves transferring some training by Okinawa-based U.S. forces to Japan Self-Defense Force bases elsewhere in Japan and returning several training areas, including a water training area east of Okinawa and two islands used for bombing runs and live fire training west of Okinawa.
Meanwhile, some Japanese lawmakers have not given up on the idea of moving all Futenma-based Marine units to the island of Tinian in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Six officials with Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan were on Saipan over the weekend, and CNMI Gov. Benigno Fitial and Guam Gov. Felix P. Camacho are scheduled to meet Hatoyama in Tokyo on Thursday, according to Shinsuke Amiya, a member of the Lower House from Kagoshima Prefecture, where Tokunoshima is located.
“We are convinced that this is the only way to solve the Futenma impasse,” Amiya said Monday. “The Mayor of Tinian told us that Tinian will welcome the move of Futenma units to their island. After all, two thirds of the the island is leased by the U.S. military but has remained idle for the past three decades, with the weeds growing thick. There is an ample space for them to accept the Marine units there.”
U.S. military officials, however, have said that it is important air operations remain on Okinawa to support Marine ground units that will remain there.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.