RELATED STORY:Activists also target Iwakuni air station

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — With President Barack Obama to pay his first visit to Japan next week, Okinawans are stepping up opposition to a new Marine air station on Camp Schwab.

Okinawa officials are united against moving air operations to Schwab in the rural north of the island, but differing opinions coming from the new government in Tokyo have made for a tense situation ahead of Obama’s arrival.

Pentagon officials are holding fast to the stance that the Schwab move is the linchpin for closing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in urban Ginowan, which will trigger a major relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Marine aviation on Okinawa could be the most public crack in the U.S.-Japan security alliance since the 1995 abduction and rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor. That incident gave rise to the clamor for a deal to reduce the footprint of the U.S. military on the island. A key part of that agreement was relocating Marine air operations to a more rural part of the island.

More than 3,000 people are expected at an anti-base rally Sunday in Ginowan sponsored by Mayor Yoichi Iha and other Okinawa officials.

The frustration on Okinawa is compounded by conflicting statements made by ministers of the new left-leaning government in Tokyo. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan took power in September, has called for more talks with the U.S. over the Futenma relocation plan.

Before the election, the party as a whole pushed for relocating the Marine air facility outside Okinawa.

But now, Hatoyama’s Cabinet is split.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has said moving the air base off Okinawa wasn’t an option, but also floated the alternative of moving the Marines to Kadena Air Base, which U.S. officials and some Okinawa officials reject.

“Operationally, it is unworkable,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Friday. “You cannot consolidate the Air Force operations, the Marine Corps operations onto that facility and do all the things that we need to do to provide for the defense of Japan.

“The only replacement that works is the one that’s been agreed to by both of our governments ... and that’s Camp Schwab.”

On the other hand, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa has indicated he supports the U.S. contention that the Camp Schwab plan is the only viable solution to relocating MCAS Futenma.

Officials in Nago, where Camp Schwab is located, say they are confused by the new government’s lack of unity.

“I have a jittery feeling concerning the comments being made by Cabinet members,” Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro said Monday.

Masashi Nishihara, president of a Tokyo-based think tank, Research Institute for Peace and Security, said Hatoyama is making a mistake by allowing disunity within his Cabinet.

“It is very irresponsible of him,” Nishihara said.

“What he should be doing is to gather the different opinions and make one solid government voice.”

What everyone seems to agree on now is that there will be no consensus of opinion before Obama’s visit. Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus who specializes in the study of the U.S.-Japan alliance, said Obama’s visit could could stir emotions among the Japanese people, who are becoming increasingly offended by the uncompromising attitude of U.S. officials.

“It is hard to predict how the deadlocked issue will affect relations between the countries,” Gabe said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Charlie Reed contributed to this story.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now