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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japan’s Defense Ministry has set up a task force to facilitate a multibillion-dollar realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

The realignment would see Marine Corps Air Station Futenma relocate to northern Okinawa and 8,600 Marines move to Guam but it has run into strong opposition from Okinawans and, more recently, from U.S. politicians concerned about the cost in a time of economic crisis.

Newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda vowed this week to uphold the U.S.-Japan agreement to keep a Marine Corps air station on Okinawa despite the planned drawdown of forces in the coming years.

But it is unclear whether Noda, 54 — who became the country’s sixth prime minister in five years following Monday’s election — will be able to push through the realignment while his country struggles through an economic crisis and the worst disaster in generations.

The realignment task force is made up teams that will specialize in planning and coordination, the Futenma and Guam moves and finding a place for U.S. pilots to practice aircraft carrier landings, according to a Defense Ministry news release.

Team members will work closely with U.S. officials of Department of State, Department of Defense, National Security Council, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, U.S. Forces Japan, as well as Japanese government agencies and local governments, the news release said.

Toshimi Kitazawa, who stepped down as Japan’s Defense Minister on Tuesday after two years in the job, said he organized the task force in the hope that the Ministry and Japanese Self-Defense Force would make an all-out effort to push the realignment forward.

“Restructure of U.S. Forces Japan, such as Futenma, Guam and Mageshima (a candidate site for carrier landing practice) was one major policy that I have devoted my effort for the past two years,” Kitazawa said during his last news conference as minister.

Masashi Nishihara, president of a Tokyo-based think tank Research Institute for Peace and Security, and retired president of the National Defense Academy, said that it is still unknown if the task force will help accelerate stalled realignment projects.

“Talks will start but will they be able to reach the goal?” he said. “It is hard to tell how the teams will work until we know what areas the (new) minister’s priorities are in.”

sumidac@pstripes.osd.mil

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