The leader of one of Japan's ruling coalition parties said Wednesday she wants a U.S. Marine base moved off the southern island of Okinawa, deepening a dispute with Washington over the future of the airfield.
Mizuho Fukushima, head of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, said that as a member of the Cabinet she supports the closure and removal of the base.
"I am optimistic something can be done to move the base off Okinawa or out of the country," she said after a meeting with Okinawa's governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, in the local capital of Naha.
"I also think it would be best if the base could be moved off Okinawa," Nakaima said.
The future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has become a heated dispute between the two allies. Washington wants Tokyo to stick to an agreement forged with Japan's previous government in 2006 to move the base to a different part of the Japanese island, but Tokyo's new leaders have suggested it be moved elsewhere.
Under intense pressure from his political base, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Japan needs several more months to decide, prompting the U.S. Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, to warn that the base's status is "absolutely vital to the defense that we provide for the entire region."
Fukushima, the leader of the smallest group in Japan's three-party ruling coalition, has hinted her party would withdraw from the government if the base is not moved off Okinawa. Her staunch opposition to the previous plan is seen as a primary factor behind Hatoyama's reluctance to decide on a relocation site.
The U.S. had hoped for a resolution by the end of the year, but Hatoyama said a hasty decision would be irresponsible. Okinawa residents complain about base-related noise, pollution and crime, and many want the airfield closed and its functions moved off the island.
The 2006 reorganization plan was aimed at lightening the load on Okinawa, which hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan under a security pact forged after World War II. Under the plan, the Futenma base was to be moved to Nago, a less crowded part of northern Okinawa, and about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa were to be moved to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014.
Hatoyama has promised that Tokyo will adopt a less subservient relationship with Washington, but has also stressed the U.S. security alliance is the cornerstone of Japan's diplomacy.
Futenma, located in the crowded city of Ginowan, is major hub for air and logistics operations for the Marines in Asia. Marine officials say some of its operations need to stay in Okinawa to back up the mission of the U.S. forces here.