TOKYO — Japan’s new foreign minister said Tuesday the current government owes Okinawa a double apology for continuing to host a disproportionate number of U.S. troops on the small southern island.

But Seiji Maehara also said his boss, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, will continue to ask Okinawa for understanding as plans for the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma operations within the island go forward.

“I apologize to the people of Nago city where Henoko, the replacement facility for Futenma, is planned to be built,” Maehara said Tuesday during his first press conference with foreign media in Tokyo since becoming Japan’s top diplomat last month.

The second part of that double apology, Maehara continued, acknowledges that Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan broke a campaign promise last year when it pledged to keep the replacement station off Okinawa. Maehara said the political mistake called for him to “bow my head in most abject apology” to the residents in Nago.

The apologies came as Okinawa prepares to elect its governor next month, an election that could further stall the Futenma move. The overall goal of the move involves relocating 8,600 U.S. Marines to Guam, a decrease of nearly a third of the U.S. troops currently on Okinawa. That shuffling requires building a new Marine station and runway at Camp Schwab near Henoko, a project that the local governor could block.

Maehara was less contrite Tuesday when talking about a recent dispute with China, defending Japan’s actions last month against a small crew of Chinese fisherman whose boat collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels, calling the incident “ill-willed.”

In early September, Japan accused the fishermen of intentionally causing the collision in waters between Okinawa and Taiwan. The Chinese crew originally was held by Japan officials. All have since been released.

The incident sparked a diplomatic spat over the Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls though China and Taiwan have disputed that claim in recent years.

This month, Kyodo News Agency reported Japan and the United States were planning military exercises for later this year to defend against the invasion of a remote island.

On Tuesday, Maehara declined to talk specifics, but he said such exercises are needed.

“I’m not saying in which waters these exercises should take place,” Maehara said in response to a question. “However, when you consider the close defense cooperation between the U.S. and Japan, there will be various joint exercises that will be held and this is extremely important.”

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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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