Japan's foreign minister toured the southern island of Okinawa to meet with local officials Saturday to seek a compromise over the relocation of a U.S. military base at the center of a dispute with Washington.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada met with local government officials to hear their opinions regarding the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a major U.S. base in the middle of a city that is to be moved to a less crowded part of Okinawa under a 2006 pact.
Okada told the mayor of Ginowan, the site of the base, that the negotiations over its relocation are "extremely tough," suggesting that a decision on whether to abide by the 2006 pact may not be made by the end of the year, as Washington had hoped.
Many Okinawans want the base closed and its functions moved off the island altogether. They say it poses a threat to the safety of the people who live near it, and have complained of base-related crime and environmental issues.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who took office in September, has expressed support for that position, although Japan's previous government agreed with the United States that a new facility would be built on Okinawa.
The issue has raised frictions within Japan's ruling coalition as well, with the junior member of the ruling bloc hinting it might withdraw its support if the base is not moved off Okinawa.
The United States has about 47,000 troops stationed in Japan under a mutual security pact. Most of bases are on Okinawa.
To lighten Okinawa's load, Tokyo and Washington have agreed to move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014, but the U.S. military says that plan cannot move forward until Futenma's replacement facility is finalized.