GINOWAN, Okinawa – Thousands attended a rally here Sunday protesting plans to construct a new military air base on Okinawa, only days ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan.

Obama, who delayed his visit for a day in order to attend Tuesday’s memorial service at Fort Hood, is expected to arrive in Tokyo on Friday. During his two-day visit he is expected to discuss a 2006 bilateral agreement to realign U.S. troops in Japan. Part of the plan includes closing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in the middle of urban Ginowan, and moving it to Camp Schwab, on Okinawa’s rural northeast shore.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his new left-center government want to take a second look at the agreement. Some members of his cabinet suggest the Marine air operations be moved outside Okinawa altogether, while at least one has called for moving the Marines to Kadena Air Base, already the largest U.S. air base in Asia.

Okinawa police estimated the crowd at Sunday’s rally to be slightly more than 6,000, although organizers pegged the number at 21,000. It was one of the largest rallies against the U.S bases on Okinawa in recent years. It followed a much smaller rally in the town of Kadena on Saturday.

The chief organizer of the event was Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, who wants the base closed immediately, whether or not a replacement is built. MCAS Futenma has been slated to be closed since 1996, after Tokyo and Washington, reacting to mass protests in the wake of a 1995 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor, decided to return some 20 percent of the land on the island occupied by the U.S. military.

The demand to close Futenma grew in 2004 after a Marine helicopter crashed into a nearby university.

"I urge Prime Minister Hatoyama to tell President Obama that Okinawa needs no more U.S. bases," Iha said at the rally. "I urge Prime Minister Hatoyama to make a brave decision and put an end to Okinawa’s burden and ordeal."

Five other speakers took the stage, all calling for the Marine air operations to be moved outside Okinawa. A resolution was passed to relay their wishes to the government.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada appeared on a nationally-televised news program Sunday and stated a decision on the Futenma relocation plan could be delayed until early next year.

He also said he did not think the Futenma issue will be the main topic of discussion between the two leaders.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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