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WASHINGTON — If U.S. Marines are removed from Okinawa in the military’s possible realignment of forces in the Pacific, the top Marine commanding general in theater favors stationing them on mainland Japanese military bases versus anywhere else in the theater.

“I think moving away from Japan moves us away from where the need is and where most of the problems are likely to occur,” Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, commander of Marine Forces Pacific, said Thursday.

“Where we would move? Don’t know. But … the purpose of a move would be to enhance our ability to train with the [Japanese] Self-Defense Forces,” Gregson told defense reporters. “Moving onto one of their bases somewhere, or a number of them, might make sense. It’s an option that I think is yet unexplored, but that would be the one that I would favor.”

The Defense Department is in the midst of a massive analysis of possible realignment of forces worldwide, but also is poised to position forces to deal with threats posed by North Korea.

For years, there has been speculation of a reduction in the roughly 17,000 Marines in the Pacific, particularly the 15,000 stationed on Okinawa. U.S. military bases occupy almost one-fifth of the island.

The Pentagon has boosted assets in the Pacific, including positioning long-range bombers on Guam and studying whether to base a nuclear aircraft carrier at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

While there has been tension between Okinawans and the U.S. military, it is a love-hate relationship blown out of proportion by those who don’t live on the island, Gregson said.

“The general impression outside of Okinawa is that it’s two warring camps divided by a cyclone fence and we’re at each other’s throat all the time,” Gregson said. “That could not be further from the truth.”

Marines register the highest voluntary extension and reenlistment rate in the Corps, and a majority of the Okinawans favor the U.S. military presence there, he explained.

Good government-to-government relationships provide a foundation for possibly sharing bases, he said.

“The [Japanese] Self-Defense Forces and the Japanese Defense Agency are changing as we watch, and if we’re going to grow into an ever tighter alliance with the Japanese, who support our mutual interests in the Pacific ... maybe it’s also time to talk about combining the bases. We’re almost there now.”

He cited Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni as an example, where “you have Marines on one side of the runway and Japanese on the other side of the runway, and everybody works together. It’s a combined base in everything but name.”

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