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Japan wants U.S. military presence on Okinawa cut, but without hurting security

By VINCE LITTLE AND HANA KUSUMOTO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 9, 2005

TOKYO — Japan wants the U.S. military presence on Okinawa reduced — but not at the expense of the American role as a deterrent power here, the nation’s top defense official told a news conference Friday.

Yoshinori Ohno, Japan’s minister of State for Defense, said those are the key requests being pushed by Japan in the ongoing discussions over the potential realignment of U.S. forces. He’s hoping to advance that agenda next month during the proposed “two-plus-two” talks, in which he and Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura would sit down with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — the nominee to replace Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“We have to discuss the security circumstances surrounding Japan,” Ohno said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “We have common views. We need to talk about the roles and missions to be shared by the two countries.”

Over the past two years, the United States and Japan have met routinely, floating different ideas about the potential reorganization and realignment of U.S. forces in Japan. Neither side has announced a firm date for the anticipated ministerial discussions.

According to media reports, a central theme in the military realignment talks focuses on whether Japan will accept a U.S. proposal to relocate the U.S. Army’s 1st Corps headquarters in Washington state to Camp Zama.

Ohno, who became Japan’s defense chief last September, declined to establish a decision deadline or discuss what changes might be instituted.

“There are key points to examine,” he said. “We must reach a conclusion on facilities and areas in Japan. But it’s under negotiation.”

Easing the burden of the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa is a top priority, he said. Right now, 75 percent of the facilities in Japan operated by American forces sit on the island.

The U.S. forces’ enhancement to Japan’s security level, however, should be maintained, Ohno said.

“We are asking the U.S. government to observe these two principles,” he said. “The deterrent capability of U.S. forces in Japan should stay the same.”

Ohno said he also plans to tackle other issues this year.

Given the changing international security environment, he hopes to make peacekeeping operations a primary function of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces — instead of the subordinate role it now plays.

Japan’s new defense guidelines, unveiled Dec. 10, illustrate Tokyo’s desire to place the JSDF in a larger international role. But it’s crucial to “maintain civilian control,” Ohno said.

Turning the defense agency into a ministry also is a top objective, he added.

“‘Agency’ sounds like an administrative organization engaged in [a] practical and businesslike field,” he said.

The agency currently falls under the control of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but if upgraded to a ministry, defense officials will be able to bring up issues at cabinet meetings and request a separate budget.

Ohno has said he also plans to establish simplified procedures for dealing with potential missile attacks from neighboring countries. With nations such as North Korea in possession of weapons that can reach Japan in 10-12 minutes, he said, there needs to be a faster response.

“We must establish a decision-making process for when a missile comes to Japan,” he said.