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Japan prime minister candidate takes aim at U.S. basing plan

GINOWAN, Okinawa — Ichiro Ozawa, the so-called “kingmaker” of the Democratic Party of Japan and a candidate for prime minister, indicated Wednesday that a controversial plan to move Marines from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a new facility on Camp Schwab is unlikely to survive as is if he is elected.

During a joint press conference Wednesday evening in Tokyo with Prime Minister Naoto Kan after they both filed their candidacies for heading the DPJ, Ozawa said he would call for a review but it would be impossible for the current Futenma relocation plan to go ahead as long as Okinawan opposition to it remains high.

‘‘I am confident that we can find a plan that could satisfy both Okinawa and the U.S. government if we think hard,’’ Ozawa said.

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Kan, who became prime minister after Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June after failing to find an alternate site for the air station outside Okinawa, has approved the relocation plan, which was reaffirmed by both governments in May.

In Japan, the leader of the majority party becomes prime minister. If Ozawa wins the election Sept. 14 he’d become Japan’s sixth prime minister in four years.

Although Ozawa has fared poorly in early election public opinion polls, political analysts are calling the race too close to call because the former DPJ secretary general has a large power base within the party and only party members allowed to vote. Ozawa was president of the party from April 2006 until May 2009, when he stepped down in the wake of a funding scandal.

During the press conference, Ozawa hinted that he had an alternate plan for moving the Marine air units and closing Marine Corps Base Futenma, but he would not elaborate.

The current plan calls for two possible runway configurations, both of which would require building out onto waters of Oura Bay, home to an endangered salt water manatee.

Kan said backing out on the Futenma relocation plan would only “cause new confusion.”

‘‘If we remain in a situation where we cannot show a clear direction (on the Futenma issue), it could have a negative impact on domestic and international affairs,’’ he said during the televised event. “If we start from scratch all over again it would invite further confusion on this issue.”

“Under the current framework, no matter how hard we try, the plan will not move forward because of the opposition from Okinawa,” Ozawa countered. Okinawa’s prefectural assembly and the island’s mayors oppose the project and the issue has reinvigorated an anti-base movement. Both candidates for governor in November oppose the plan.

When Ozawa announced his candidacy last week, Japan political analysts said his election could dramatically change the country’s foreign relations.

“He could be Japan’s first prime minister to actually shift the axis of Japan’s foreign policy, which traditionally leans heavily towards the United States, more toward other Asian nations,” said Masaaki Gabe, director of the Institute of International Okinawa Studies at the University of the Ryukyus.

Said Kazuya Sakamoto, a professor at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Law and Politics: “There is no doubt that if he is chosen it will add another layer of confusion to the U.S. Japan relations.”

allend@pstripes.osd.mil

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