Japan PM seeks compromise on US base deal

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Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama today urged residents of Okinawa island to accept a compromise involving partial relocation of a US Marine base before a self-imposed end-of-May deadline.

The feud over relocating the Futenma Marine base has shaken ties with Washington and contributed to Hatoyama's tumbling support rates ahead of an upper house election his Democratic Party must win to avoid policy deadlock.

On his first visit to the southern island of Okinawa since taking office, the premier said he wanted islanders to accept a plan that would keep some of Futenma's facilities within the prefecture, though he had earlier raised hopes it could be moved off Okinawa altogether.

"Whenever you move a base or build a new one, there will be critical voices from local people," Hatoyama, dressed in a traditional short-sleeved Okinawan shirt, told reporters after meeting Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

"I must accept those feelings, but I would like the people of the whole country to understand and be willing to share the burden, because the bases are necessary for national security."

He did not give details of the government proposal, but said moving the whole base off the island had proved difficult from a deterrence perspective.

Okinawa plays host to about half the 49,000 US military personnel in Japan. Resentment of the noise, crime and accidents associated with the military presence periodically flares into outrage.

Today, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the city hall in the island's capital of Naha demanding Hatoyama keep his promises.

"From before the election, he was promising to move the base out," said 48-year-old Chikako Toguchi of Nago on Okinawa, referring to last year's general election.

"That's why I and a lot of my friends voted for the Democrats. If it turns out he just said that to win the election, he has made fools of the Okinawans," she said.

An angry reaction from Okinawa will further damage Hatoyama's support, already battered by financial scandals in the ruling party, ahead of the upper house election expected in July.

Polls show voters think Hatoyama lacks the ability to take tough decisions, so he is likely anxious to be seen taking the lead on a thorny issue like Futenma.

The United States wants to go ahead with a 2006 agreement to shift Futenma's facilities to a site off Camp Schwab, another Marine base in a more remote part of Okinawa.

Domestic media say Hatoyama wants to compromise by shifting some Futenma Marines to the tiny island of Tokunoshima, northeast of Okinawa, while altering plans for a new runway off Camp Schwab to reduce the environmental impact.

The top US envoy on the issue said in a recent newspaper interview he had received a "serious" proposal on Futenma that could move talks forward, but Washington has said it will not accept a plan opposed by local people.