TOKYO — Japan's prime minister said for the first time Tuesday that at least part of a key U.S. military base will remain on the southern island of Okinawa, a move that could reduce tension with Washington but dent his sinking popularity and raise the ire of island residents.
A dispute over the relocation of Futenma Marine Corps airfield has become the focal point of U.S.-Japan ties since Yukio Hatoyama took office last September promising to move the base off Okinawa — contrary to a 2006 agreement with Washington that called for it to be moved to a less crowded, northern part of the island.
But on his first visit to Okinawa as prime minister, Hatoyama said it would be difficult if not impossible to move Futenma's facilities off the island.
He essentially acknowledged that his government has been unable to come up with any other viable alternatives to Nago, the proposed relocation site in the north, and is shifting back toward the 2006 plan.
"Realistically speaking, it is impossible," he said. "We have reached a conclusion that it is difficult to relocate all of Futenma's functions outside the country or the island because of a need to maintain deterrence under the Japan-U.S. alliance."
Hatoyama's backtracking will likely drag down his public approval ratings, which have fallen to about 20 percent amid a political funding scandal and perceived lack of leadership, and could hurt his party's prospects in July upper house elections.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States and Japan would continue an evaluation of the best way to maintain American operations and to keep the alliance strong.