Despite Protests, US Base to Stay on Japan's Okinawa
But the deal to keep some 25,000 American troops stationed on Okinawa represents a broken promise by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was elected last year on a campaign pledge to move the base off the island. He acknowledged last month that he would probably go back on his promise, and his political future is uncertain now, just weeks ahead of nationwide mid-term elections.
Instead, the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be relocated to a less populated northern area of Okinawa, the statement said. The move fulfills a 2006 agreement between Washington and Tokyo over the base. The $10.3 billion plan will also move about 8,000 Marines off Okinawa and onto another U.S. base in Guam.
The Okinawa base has been deeply unpopular with local residents for years, after a series of high-profile incidents soured local sentiment toward American troops there. Locals have staged huge rallies in recent months with up to 100,000 protesters, in an effort to force Hatoyama to keep his campaign promise.
In 1995, three U.S. servicemen were convicted of kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old Japanese girl there. Another Marine was charged in 2008 with raping a 14-year-old Okinawan girl. And in 2004, a Marine Corps transport helicopter crashed at a nearby university, damaging the campus but causing no injuries on the ground. Locals also complain of noise and air pollution stemming from the base.
Okinawa hosts more than half of the 47,000 American troops on Japanese soil. The military base was originally an imperial Japanese facility, which the U.S. took control of after World War II.
It's a strategic one for Washington, because of the southern island's proximity to China, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula, where tensions have skyrocketed in recent weeks over the sinking of a South Korean warship. An international panel implicated North Korea, which denied any involvement, but the flareup has pushed both countries closer than ever to renewed war.
"Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the Alliance," the joint statement said, referring to the Koreas. It was released by Japan's foreign ministry and quoted by several news agencies.
The "Alliance" is a reference to a 1960 security pact between the U.S. and Japan, under which American forces are allowed to be based in Japan, in exchange for responding to any attacks on the country.
"A robust forward presence of U.S. military forces in Japan, including in Okinawa, provides the deterrence and capabilities necessary for the defense of Japan and for the maintenance of regional stability," the statement said. It was issued by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their Japanese counterparts.
Hatoyama phoned President Barack Obama today, and the White House said Obama "expressed appreciation that the two countries could reach an agreement."