Obama meets Japan's Hatoyama, stressing equal partnership
Obama, in first stop of his Asia trip, addressed the thorny issue of a US military base in Okinawa. Despite recent tensions, Obamamania is still strong in Japan.
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Japan's many antinuclear activists admire Obama's championing of a nuclear-free world, a cause that helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize in last month. More Japanese are urging the president to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities hit by atomic bombs during World War II. He is not expected to travel to either place during this trip but has said he would like to visit them in the future.Skip to next paragraph
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Hit-and-run could overshadow president's visit
Despite Mr. Obama's popularity in Japan, however, a fatal hit-and-run incident involving a US soldier in Okinawa island on Saturday has reminded residents there of the costs of hosting US military bases.
More than 20,000 Okinawa residents gathered on Sunday to oppose a longtime plan to relocate the main base, US Marines Air Station Futenma. Since Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to close the base and replace it with a new facility in a more sparsely populated part of the island's north, no action has been taken due to vehement opposition from residents and environmental groups.
Adding to the complications, the new government is reviewing a 2006 bilateral agreement to realign US troops, by moving thousands of Marines to Guam as well as relocating Futenma.
During his visit to Japan last month, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Tokyo bluntly to implement the realignment plans immediately.
"The Futenma relocation facility is the linchpin of the realignment road map. Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa," said Mr. Gates. "This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on."
His comments disappointed many Japanese, especially those in Okinawa and Iwakuni, which host US troops.
"The US and Japan agreed to the realignment plan without explaining it to residents [who live near US military facilities]," says Katsusuke Ihara, former mayor of Iwakuni. "The two countries had kept their ostensibly good relations, but they should establish a mature relationship now."
Residents in Iwakuni and Okinawa "won't accept the current plans. Once again, they would be carried out in the face of strong opposition. And, once again, that could really harm the bilateral ties," he says.
Despite the hostility the bases have provoked, however, many residents still have hope in the president, who addressed the issue Friday. "Let me first of all insist that the United States and Japan are equal partners.... [That] will be reflected in the resolution of the base realignment [Marine base].... Our goal remains the same, and that's to provide for the defense of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share the space."
Obama also invited some mayors and the governor of Okinawa and Obama City Mayor Koji Matsuzaki to his speech in Tokyo on Saturday.
Says Setsuko Nakamura, an antibase activist on Okinawa: "Obama-san shows an attitude of generosity and also exerts enormous confidence. That's what a leader needs.
"Okinawans still believe Obama-san will listen to us."