TOKYO — Japan is considering spending 187.8 billion yen — about $2.2 billion — to maintain U.S. military bases in the country over the coming fiscal year.

For the first time, however, the request is being made in a special category separate from the nation’s defense budget, which will involve a procedure that is much more open to public scrutiny.

The Ministry of Defense announced its “host nation support” request Tuesday in its proposed budget 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 the 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, and both governments are expected to renew it.

The defense ministry, which submitted a total budget request of 4.71 trillion yen ($55.4 billion), asked that the money for supporting U.S. bases be included in a special category of budget reserves to promote economic growth. Because it is now in those reserves, the budget for the bases will be subjected to public hearings before being acted on by the prime minister.

Putting the host-nation support budget into the special category does have a drawback, warned Tsuneo Watanabe, an expert on U.S.-Japan relations and a senior fellow with the Tokyo Foundation.

“There is an element of uncertainty in allocating the budget under the special reserves, because the final approval is in the hands of the prime minister,” Watanabe said. If Prime Minister Naoto Kan is elected president of his party this month and retains his national leadership, the budget is likely to be passed, he said.

“However, if Mr. [Ichiro] Ozawa becomes prime minister, it is hard to predict how he would handle it,” Watanabe said.

Such hearings also are sure to attract opponents of the U.S. bases, especially on Okinawa, where the island’s mayors have joined the prefectural assembly in opposing a plan to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in urban Ginowan and to build a new air facility on Camp Schwab in rural northeast Okinawa.

Among costs to support U.S. bases in Japan, the ministry is asking for:

• 114.2 billion yen ($1.35 billion) for Japanese labor

• 24.9 billion yen ($295 million) for utilities

• 21.0 billion yen ($248.8 million) for improving facilities

• 500 million yen ($5.9 million) for relocating training

The total Japanese defense budget request also includes 111.4 billion yen ($1.32 billion) for the rolling cost of moving some 8,000 Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam, the same amount as was budgeted for this year and an item separate from host-nation support.

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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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