Japanese foreign minister visits Okinawa

Japan's foreign minister urged the governor of Okinawa to drop his opposition to a plan to relocate a U.S. air station to another base on the southern island, saying the security alliance with Washington was a key to Japan's national security.Okinawa hosts about half of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Residents oppose their presence on the island and have long protested the crowding, noise and crime associated with the bases.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso told Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine that the security alliance with the United States was critical for Japan's national security, and asked for his understanding of plans to relocate the Futenma Air Station to another area on the island, according to prefectural (state) spokesman Tomiichi Kugai. Inamine asked the central government to speed up efforts to reduce the number of U.S. bases on Okinawa, Kugai said.

Aso was also to meet with the mayor of Nago, where the Futenma Air Station is expected to be moved to under the realignment plan, which Tokyo and Washington approved last month. The two sides plan to decide a relocation schedule by March 2006. The plan also calls for the transfer of 7,000 Marines from Okinawa over six years to the U.S. territory Guam and shift some of the operations to other cities on Japan's main islands.

The plan has drawn strong criticism in Okinawa and other parts of the country from people who want the troops out of Japan. "We face various problems associated with the U.S. military bases," the Okinawa prefectural (state) assembly said in a statement handed to Aso during his meeting with Inamine. "The presence of vast U.S. military facilities is a major obstacle not only for the residents' daily lives but also regional development." Aso visited the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Schwab in Nago, and was to visit Kadena Air Base, a foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity in line with ministry policy, informs the AP. N.U.

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