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Japan PM 'sorry' to Okinawa over US base

Update: February, 27/2012 - 14:25

TOKYO – Japan's premier Yoshihiko Noda on Monday offered a personal apology to Okinawa over his government's attitude to the moving of an unpopular US air base.

In his first trip to the tropical island chain as prime minister, Noda told governor Hirokazu Nakaima he intended to stick with a long-stalled plan to shift the air base, but was sorry for the way the issue had been handled.

"We mustn't fix the Futenma air station" at its current site, Noda told Nakaima, referring to a 2006 agreement for the base to be relocated from its crowded urban location to a sparsely populated coastal zone.

But a bowing Noda added: "I apologise to the governor and people of Okinawa" for the insincere attitude the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has shown towards the issue.

"We have to see progress this year in developing Okinawa and reducing your burden" of hosting US troops, Noda said.

Many Okinawans want the base off the southern island altogether and say the US military presence there should be dramatically cut.

Nakaima kept to his line of rejecting the base relocation plan and urged the central government to reconsider the move to the coral waters of Henoko in favour of an off-island solution.

But he struck a noticeably more positive tone in his talks with Noda, who is seen by some observers as being more pragmatic than either of his two DPJ predecessors.

Nakaima said policies drawn up by Noda's government on boosting Okinawa's economy "are the best in the past several years."

Tokyo and Washington agreed in 2006 to the base move and to cutting the number of troops in Okinawa, which is currently host to half of the around 47,000 US service personnel in Japan.

An initial pledge by the DPJ's first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to rethink the plan was welcomed by the island, but he later folded under pressure from Washington, souring relations between Tokyo and Okinawa.

Earlier this month Japan and the US agreed to delink the Futenma issue from the planned transfer of about 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam, in a move that was seen as a possible way to break the long-standing impasse. AFP

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