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As Okinawa marks 40 years of postwar sovereignty, US bases still an irritant

Okinawa marked the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty from US postwar control Tuesday amid political deadlock over the relocation of a key US military base.

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But resolving the Futenma issue is less urgent now that agreement has been reached on reducing the troop headcount on Okinawa, according to Jun Okumura, a Japan analyst at the Eurasia Group political risk and consulting firm.

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 "Separating Futenma from the Guam transfer takes the pressure off both parties to do something about it now," he says. "They can put it on the back burner until, or if, the political climate is more conducive [to base relocation]."

Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the deal should satisfy critics in Congress who had dismissed the original plan as unclear and costly.

"We think it breaks a very long stalemate that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems," he said last month.

What people (don’t) want

Many Okinawans, though, do not share Mr. Campbell's optimism. In a new poll of the island's residents by the public broadcaster NHK, 71 percent say people from elsewhere in Japan do not understand their plight, up 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

"Nothing has changed since reversion to Japan, when there was a growing expectation that US bases in the prefecture would go away," a 79-year-old woman in Ginowan told Kyodo News. "The Japanese government should examine the situation throughout Okinawa and find out how things really are."

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, says it is highly unlikely that Futenma will be moved.

"The Japanese government has known that since the 2006 road map," he says. "If that's the case, the remaining marines will stay at Futenma, and that is an accident waiting to happen."

Alternatives suggested by Jim Webb and two other US senators have gone unheeded, including the option of moving Funtenma's marines to the nearby Kadena air base.

"The Pentagon has ignored them and ignored public opinion in Okinawa, which is why we have the impasse today," says Mr. Kingston.

Okinawa’s burden

Mr. Noda said Thursday he was aware of Okinawa's heavy burden. "I pledge again to alleviate that strain at an early date in specific and tangible ways," he said, adding that it was one of "one of the most important challenges for my cabinet."

The Japanese leader appears to have less to lose by sticking to the original plan than by suggesting alternative sites in Japan – a strategy that led to Yukio Hatoyama's resignation as prime minister in 2010.

"Outside Okinawa, most people support the US-Japan alliance and agree with hosting military bases, as long as they stay on Okinawa," says Kingston. "Politically, Noda won't have to pay that big a price. His Democratic Party of Japan is already a spent force in Okinawan politics, so why should he stick his neck out and alienate the US in the process?"

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