CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japan’s Ministry of Defense on Friday urged the government to continue Japan’s financial commitment to support the presence of U.S. forces in Japan.

“Security environment surrounding Japan today is very severe,” Vice Minister of Defense Jun Azumi told a government panel during a public hearing on Japan’s 2011 budget in Tokyo.

“Japan has a lot of outer islands to defend and our national defense budget is just 4.70 trillion yen ($58.7 billion),” Azumi said during the hearing, which was broadcast via the web. “What makes it possible is the presence of U.S. Forces Japan.”

The Defense Ministry requested 187.8 billion yen (about $2.2 billion) in September for “host nation support” for fiscal 2011. The amount, which pays for utilities, facility improvements and the salaries of Japanese base employees, is up slightly from the 186.9 billion yen ($2.19 billion) budgeted for this year.

Also called the “sympathy budget,” Japan has been reducing the amount it pays for U.S. bases over the past decade from a high of $3.17 billion in 1999. The bilateral agreement that covers host nation support expires in March.

The Defense Ministry asked that the money for supporting U.S. bases be separated from the nation’s defense budget and be included in a special category of budget reserves to promote economic growth. A total of 1.3 trillion yen ($16.25 billion) is set aside to be spent on projects that contribute to revitalizing Japan. Final approval on how the reserve funds will be used will be made by Prime Minister Naoto Kan in December. But before Kan makes his decision, the budget for the bases will be subjected to public hearings and comment, as do all budgets that fall under the special reserves.

On the second of the three-day public hearing, Azumi stressed the importance of discussing the budget openly.

“The reason we made this budget in the special reserves was to deepen the understanding of the public for the host nation support program,” he said, adding that the U.S. defense budget faces significant cuts and the U.S. government has urged Japan to increase host nation support.

While the panel agreed that the public should have an understanding of where the money goes, it declined to further discuss the issue during the 45-minute session allocated for the Defense Ministry.

“We believe it is not appropriate to discuss this matter here,” said Tatsuo Hirano, a lead panelist and vice minister of the Cabinet Office. “We will respond on the basis of the outcome of the negotiations between Japanese and U.S. governments. ...”

Three other ministries had similar sessions. Nearly 200,000 people tuned in during the three-plus-hour live coverage, according to Nico Nico Doga, who webcast the event.

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