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TOKYO – Japan’s new minister of defense on Wednesday said his government was looking into how its defense forces can further contribute to the war in Afghanistan beyond its civilian participation.

Toshimi Kitazawa said the new government, which has said it would end a refueling mission for coalition warships, has not decided yet what it can do but indicated civilian and economic support seemed insufficient.

His comments in a joint press conference came at the end of two days of meetings between Japan’s leadership and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates suggested to his counterpart that that one area the wealthy nation could help is providing badly needed financing for “the expansion and sustainment” of Afghanistan’s security forces.

Whatever Japan decides, he said, “I hope its contribution would be commensurate with its standing as a great power.”

Gates earlier in the day met with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and on Tuesday with the foreign affairs minister, Katsuya Okada.

Since 2001, Japan has pledged roughly $2 billion and spent $1.7 billion in war assistance, according to the Pentagon. This year, Japan paid for six months worth of salaries for the entire Afghan police force, about 80,000 members, in addition to hundreds of millions in humanitarian aid and governance, security and reconstruction programs. In June, Japan pledged an additional $500 million in aid, including $300 million for election assistance.

The U.S., meanwhile, has budgeted $68 billion for fiscal 2010 just in the Pentagon’s dedicated account for the war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Kitazawa said Japanese public support for hosting U.S. forces was “declining somewhat” but the government was committed to sustaining a strong support for the U.S. presence in Japan. Issue No. 1 remains the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Gates unequivocally stated the U.S. delegation’s opposition to any changes in a 15-year force transformation agreement the Pentagon is anxious to implement. “Our view is clear”, he said, labeling Futenma as “the linchpin” of the relocation roadmap. Without that base’s movement, there can be no relocation of 8,000 Marines and their families off of Okinawa to Guam, he said.

Kitazawa said he heard and understood the forceful argument from the U.S. asking the Japanese to move the process forward.

“I don’t think we have the luxury of wasting much time on this,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”

Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said Wednesday that he would closely monitor the negotiations.

He stressed that he would like Futenma’s airstrip operations moved off Okinawa, but understands that the most like option is moving it to Camp Schwab.

“To begin with, the size of the air facility will be much smaller [than the existing air station],” he said.

Also, it will enable closure of bases south of Kadena Air Base, as well as moving the Marines to Guam, he said.

Meanwhile, anti-military activists expressed their faith in the new administration.

“We have a faith in the promise made by Prime Minister Hatoyama and the Democratic Party Japan to move Futenma out of Okinawa,” said Sakae Toyama of Peace Citizens’ Network, one of the groups who have staged a sit-in protest at the Henoko fishing port since the location was chosen as the new location of the runway 10 years ago.

“They will not yield,” Toyama said. “Otherwise, the new government is no different from the previous government.”


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