Japan's foreign minister said Sunday that no deal on relocating U.S. troops on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa can be expected during President Barack Obama's visit this week, saying the issue needs more time to resolve.
Obama is scheduled to arrive Friday, and a meeting with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is on the agenda. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Sunday on TV Asahi that "an agreement between the heads of state holds heavy meaning," but cannot be expected to be completed during Obama's visit.
Washington and Tokyo agreed in 2006 that the Marine airfield in Futenma, a crowded city on Okinawa, would be relocated to another part of the island. But Japan's government changed after August elections, and Okinawans have pushed to move the base off the island entirely.
The new administration is pushing for a slightly more assertive Japan, and Hatoyama has said he wants to resolve the base issue more democratically than previous governments and wants to win the support of Okinawa.
Okinawa residents have long been concerned about base-related crime, noise and environmental damage.
On Sunday, thousands gathered to protest in Nago city on Okinawa, the most likely site for the troop transfer, police said.
Okinawan newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo said 21,000 people took part and demanded Hatoyama oppose the relocation when he meets Obama. Police estimated the crowd at 6,000.
On Saturday, more than 2,000 people staged a protest rally in Kadena, also on Okinawa, which has a U.S. air base. An expansion of Kadena is also being considered as one solution to the relocation problem.
"The loud noise of the aircraft is unbearable. We will not accept a plan to consolidate the bases, no matter what," Kadena Mayor Tokujitsu Miyagi was quoted as saying by the Kyodo News agency.
The United States has about 47,000 troops in Japan under a half-century-old security pact, more than half on Okinawa.
Tensions on Okinawa over the huge military presence go back for decades, but a furor erupted in 1996 when three U.S. servicemen were convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl. Adding to the discontent was a 2004 crash of a U.S. helicopter that burst into flames on a university campus, although it caused no injuries on the ground.
Okada said the government is looking at other options for the Futenma base, including expanding Kadena, or moving the base to the island of Iwo Jima.
"Options are being studied," he said, while refusing to comment on what the government might do if they don't pan out. "If we rush to a conclusion, and that can't be realized, that would be an even bigger problem."