Airplanes are seen on the tarmac of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Japan, in June 2006. Japan and the United States issued a joint statement May 28 stating that Futenma would move to a less-populated area of Okinawa island, not entirely off the island as some residents had hoped. (FILE PHOTO / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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TOKYO — Washington and Tokyo have agreed to keep a contentious Marine Corps base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, reaffirming the importance of their security alliance and the need to maintain American troops in the country.
In a joint statement issued Friday, the allies said they had agreed to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, a less crowded part of the southern island. The decision is broadly in line with a 2006 deal, but represents a major broken campaign promise on the part of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
Hatoyama came to office in September promising to move the Marine base off the island. But after months of searching and fruitless discussions with Washington and Okinawan officials, the prime minister said the base needed to stay in Okinawa.
His decision has angered tens of thousands of island residents who complain about base-related noise, pollution and crime.
U.S. military officials and security experts argued it is essential that Futenma remain on Okinawa because its helicopters and air assets support Marine infantry units based on the island. Moving the facility off the island could slow the Marines' coordination and response in times of emergency.
The countries said an environmental impact assessment and construction of the replacement facility should proceed "without significant delay."
The U.S. and Japan "recognized that a robust forward presence of U.S. military forces in Japan, including in Okinawa, provides the deterrence and capabilities necessary for the defense of Japan and for the maintenance of regional stability," said the statement, which was issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.
Okinawa hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, and the two countries acknowledged the need to address local complaints.
"The Ministers recognized the importance of responding to the concerns of the people of Okinawa that they bear a disproportionate burden related to the presence of U.S. forces, and also recognized that the more equitable distribution of shared alliance responsibilities is essential for sustainable development of the alliance," they said.
They said they would consider moving military training facilities off of Okinawa, possibly to the nearby island of Tokunoshima, or out of Japan completely.
The Futenma move is part of a broader plan to reorganize American troops in Japan that includes moving 8,000 Marines to Guam by 2014. But U.S. officials had said that the other pieces could not move forward until the Futenma issue was resolved.