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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — President Bush late last week nudged this key air base a step closer to sharing its runway with civilian Japanese air traffic.

But the issue remains snarled in Japanese politics and now heads for U.S.-Japanese bureaucratic review.

Bush agreed Friday to study letting civilian aircraft use the airstrip, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters after talks with Bush at the president’s private ranch in Crawford, Texas. Koizumi emerged from the meetings, Kyodo News reported, to say: “We will let bureaucrats start talks” on whether the base’s runway could be opened to nonmilitary use.

The most vocal proponent of opening Yokota has been Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. Last October, as he revved up a re-election bid he won overwhelmingly, Ishihara traveled to Washington to revive his earlier campaign promise to open Yokota to the Japanese.

Ishihara, in a recent news release, said joint use of Yokota would alleviate a shortage of airport capacity in metropolitan Tokyo, pump up Japan’s economy and enhance national power.

“From now on, this issue should be negotiated on a working level between Japan and U.S. officials,” he said.

U.S. Forces Japan officials said Tuesday that they did not know what Bush and Koizumi agreed upon since they were not part of the talks.

“I expect as a follow-on to this summit meeting, we will probably get some guidance from Washington as to how we will go forward from here,” said Col. Victor Warzinski, USFJ spokesman.

Warzinski said it was too early to tell whether commercial use of Yokota’s airstrip would affect military operations.

“We’ve traditionally held the view that it would be very difficult” because the base is integral to both day-to-day peacetime operations and contingency planning, Warzinski said.

The U.S. and Japanese governments currently are studying joint use of the runway at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station. Warzinski said that study is predicated on the idea that whatever is considered must not “adversely affect the mission undertaken at Iwakuni.”

Though joint use of Yokota’s runway has been a recurring issue, this would mark the first time both governments have studied the matter formally, Warzinski said.

Yokota is home to USFJ and the 5th Air Force. The base is considered the airlift hub of the Pacific. Dividing the base in half is an 11,500-foot runway — among Japan’s longest — which recently received $65 million in upgrades.

The Mainichi Daily News reported that Koizumi told Bush: “The air base is close to the Tokyo city center. It will have great [economic] impact if it could be used for both military and commercial purposes.”

Yoshinobu Nakajo of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Planning Division, told Stars and Stripes in October: “There is a shortage of airports in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Narita is filled and Haneda has no choice but to expand. If Yokota was returned, it could increase the strength of Tokyo and will revitalize industrial development.”

But the prospect of commercial planes taking off and landing at Yokota may further irritate local off-base residents, some of whom have complained of aircraft noise for years and have sued the Japanese government over it.

— Jennifer Svan, Hana Kusumoto and Norio Muroi contributed to this report.

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