An agreement between the United States and Japan to shift about 9,000 Marines from Okinawa was intended to ease friction with islanders who have long complained about the military presence there. But the accord leaves the most politically touchy issue unresolved: the relocation of an unpopular base on the island.
Under the plan announced late Thursday, the Marines would be moved to Guam, Hawaii and Australia. Ten thousand Marines are expected to stay on the island.
Okinawa hosts three-quarters of the U.S. military bases in Japan. Islanders have protested about noise and disruptions and argued that the American forces drive up the crime rate. Many resent the Marines as a lingering reminder of World War II defeat and a military occupation that lasted until 1972.
The deal builds on an agreement between the U.S. and Japan six years ago, which hitched shifting thousands of troops away from Okinawa to relocating the large Futenma base to another site on the island. But Japan has been unable to move the base in the face of fervent opposition from Okinawans, who have insisted that it should be moved elsewhere in Japan or abroad.
Japanese and U.S. officials said they decided to separate the two issues in order to move forward, but reiterated in a joint statement that relocating the base to a less populated northern stretch of Okinawa was “the only viable option that has been identified to date.”
The deal, heralded by the U.S. and Japan as a sign of a stronger alliance, comes just before Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visits Washington.
"This is crunch time to get all the agreements on paper so they can stand side by side and say everything is hunky-dory," said Ayako Doi, an associate fellow with the Asia Society. "But this issue of the Futenma base is at the core of U.S.-Japanese relations, and it has never been solved."
Under the plan, Japan will chip in $3.1 billion to the estimated $8.6-billion cost of shifting 5,000 of the troops to Guam.
The move would happen as soon as “appropriate facilities are available to receive them,” the joint statement said.
U.S. officials billed the change as a way to spread the forces more effectively. The agreement provides "an ongoing ability for U.S. forces to be visible and present in multiple places across the region at any given time," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters at a Thursday briefing.
"We think it breaks a very long stalemate … that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told Reuters.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: High school students on an observation platform look at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa in late 2009. Credit: Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press