Monday, November 29, 1999

Japan postpones U.S. base decision half year - report

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Japan will postpone a deadline for resolving a row over relocating a U.S. base by up to half a year to November, abandoning Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's original end-May target, the daily Sankei Shimbun said on Saturday.The decision will be conveyed to the U.S. side as early as next week, the paper said, while Kyodo news agency reported diplomatic sources saying U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would visit Japan on May 21 to discuss the base issue."In order to get the understanding of as many people as possible, we will keep seeking their cooperation even after the end of May," Transport Minister Seiji Maehara, who also holds the portfolio for Okinawa, said on NHK television.Public perceptions Hatoyama has mishandled the issue over a U.S. Marine base on the southern Japan island of Okinawa have eroded his popularity ahead of an upper house election, with a recent Jiji news agency poll showing support for his government had fallen below 20 percent for the first time.Hatoyama's Democratic Party needs a decisive win in the upper house vote expected in July to enact laws smoothly as Japan struggles to keep a recovery on track while reining in massive public debt.The heavy concentration of U.S. military bases and 47,000 troops on Okinawa is a legacy of the U.S. occupation of the island, the site of a bloody World War Two battle, from 1945 to 1972. Saturday marked the 38th anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japanese sovereignty.Many on the subtropical island have long resented bearing what they see as an unfair share of the burden for the U.S.-Japan security alliance, seen by many as vital to regional stability.Resentment over the accidents, pollution and crime many residents associate with the bases intensified after the 1995 rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.NO LET-UPThe Okinawa issue coincides with a mountain of other problems for Hatoyama including the economy, a scandal embroiling the Democratic Party's kingpin, more flip-flopping over a proposed sales tax hike and an increasingly disillusioned and angry public.The Sankei Shimbun, citing unnamed government officials, said that the postponement decision was made at a Friday meeting of cabinet ministers including Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano as well as Hatoyama.Analysts have said the next likely deadline after the end of May would be November, when U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Japan for an Asia-Pacific leaders summit.During the campaign that swept his party to power last year, Hatoyama raised hopes the U.S. Marines' Futenma airbase could be shifted off Okinawa, despite a 2006 deal with Washington to move the facility from a crowded city to a less populous site on the island.But with his self-imposed end of May deadline for settling the feud looming, Hatoyama shifted gears, saying he had come to realise that some Marines must stay on the island to deter threats.Last month, tens of thousands of Okinawans rallied to demand the premier keep his promise, and activists plan to form a human chain around Futenma airbase on Sunday.Hirano on Saturday visited the tiny island of Tokunoshima, where the government has proposed shifting some Futenma functions, to try to woo support from residents, but many remain opposed.(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Reed Stevenson)

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