Japan's foreign minister pressed Sunday for a quick resolution of a dispute over the relocation of a key U.S. Marine base, but also said he would consider options previously rejected by Washington, which could draw out negotiations.
"I don't want to put a deadline on a decision, but if at all possible I want to reach a conclusion within this year," Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told reporters on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.
Okada began a two-day trip to Okinawa on Sunday with a meeting with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and also viewed the current proposed new location for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Three years ago, Japan and the U.S. agreed to move the Futenma airstrip, which is in a crowded city and has drawn complaints from residents who say it is noisy, dangerous and leads to increased crime in the area.
But a new government swept to power earlier this year and put the deal on hold. Okada said Sunday he wants to look at combining the Futenma air base with another U.S. base in Kadena, also in Okinawa, even though U.S. officials have previously rejected the idea.
"There was at one point a proposal to combine the base with Kadena, and I want to closely investigate why it was rejected, and whether there is absolutely no possibility of this," he said.
Okada is to meet with more local officials and visit U.S. bases, including Futenma and Kadena, before leaving Monday.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has said a resolution this year will be difficult. He said Saturday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore that any decision made by his government would not be based on the current agreement, according to multiple reports in the Japanese media.
The Futenma relocation is the central component of a major realignment plan for the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan. A steady stream of senior U.S. officials has visited Tokyo to press Japan to honor the original agreement, with President Barack Obama saying the two sides would work for a quick solution when he visited on Friday.
Residents near the base want it moved, while people in the proposed new location and environmentalists oppose the current plan. Many Okinawans hope the base is moved off the island entirely, with thousands protesting over the issue earlier this month.
Tensions on Okinawa over the huge U.S. military presence go back decades, but a furor erupted in 1996 when three American 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.