By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials told the governor of Okinawa on Wednesday that a U.S. troop presence on the Japanese island, which he opposes, is fundamental to the U.S. commitment to defend Japan.
Officials from the U.S. State and Defense Departments told Takeshi Onaga in a meeting in Washington that the United States and Japan shared "an unwavering commitment" to building a new base for U.S. Marines on the island, a State Department statement said.
"The United States’ troop presence in Okinawa is fundamental to our treaty commitment to the defense of Japan," the statement said.
Onaga was elected governor last year largely because of his stand against U.S. bases. He and many Okinawans reject a proposal to move the U.S. Marines' existing Futenma base to another location on the island and insist that it move off altogether.
The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma base, which is in a populous area. But plans to move it stalled because of opposition from residents, many of whom associate U.S. bases with noise, pollution and crime.
Okinawa residents have long resented the fact that they not only suffered a devastating land battle during World War Two but now host tens of thousands of U.S. troops and U.S. military facilities taking up 18 percent of the island's area.
Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted Onaga as saying after his State Department meeting that he had warned the U.S. officials "that the construction of a (replacement) base will not be implemented smoothly if things keep going as they currently are."
Kyodo said he was referring to the way the Japanese government has moved ahead with preparatory work to build the new base in spite of local opposition.
Onaga said in Tokyo last month that he would tell those he met in the United States that ignoring the wishes of the Okinawan people would harm the reputation of both countries - especially in Asia, where the U.S.-Japan alliance is seen as a counter to the growing influence of China.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by David Storey and Steve Orlofsky)