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US, Japan agree to keep Marine air base on Okinawa

 FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2009 file photo, Gender Equality Minister Mizuho Fukushima Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party speaks during a p...

Japan US Military

FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2009 file photo, Gender Equality Minister Mizuho Fukushima Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party speaks during a p...

Washington and Tokyo agreed Friday to keep a contentious U.S. Marine base in Okinawa, with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama highlighting the importance of the Japanese-American security alliance amid rising tension on the nearby Korean peninsula.
In a joint statement, the two allies agreed to move the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, in a less crowded, northern part of the island. The decision is broadly in line with a 2006 deal forged with the previous Tokyo government, but represents a broken campaign promise from Hatoyama.
In a news conference broadcast nationwide, the prime minister repeatedly apologized for failing to keep his pledge to move the base off the island, which hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan under a 50-year-old security pact. Okinawa residents have complained about pollution, noise and possible danger from the bases.
"I am sincerely sorry for not being able to keep my words, and what is more, having hurt Okinawans in the end," he said.
Hatoyama said that the government had investigated 40 sites as alternatives for Futenma, including options off the island, but none worked. He said Futenma's helicopter and air assets were needed for nearby Marine infantry units based on the island in times of emergency _ reminding listeners that recent events on the Korean peninsula had made the region "extremely tense."
"In Asia, there still remain unstable and uncertain factors, including the sinking of a South Korean warship by North Korea," he said.
"I had to give the Japan-U.S. agreement the priority because maintaining the trust between Japan and the U.S. serves the best deterrence," he added.
The decision had domestic political fallout, too, as Hatoyama dismissed Gender Equality Minister Mizuho Fukushima from his Cabinet for her refusal to accept the agreement. But her party, a junior member in the ruling coalition, will not bolt the government.
"I couldn't betray the Okinawans," she said. "I cannot be a part of an agreement that imposes a burden on Okinawans."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano will take her spot in the Cabinet, Japanese media reports said.
Under a 1960 security pact, American armed forces are allowed broad use of Japanese land and facilities. In return, the U.S. is obliged to respond to attacks on Japan and protect the country under its nuclear umbrella.
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 joint statement, which was issued by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.
The Futenma move is part of a broader plan to reorganize American troops in Japan that includes moving 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014. But U.S. officials had said that the other pieces cannot move forward until the Futenma issue was resolved.
The two countries said an environmental impact assessment and construction of the replacement facility should proceed "without significant delay." The statement called for a logistical study to be completed by the end of August.
The base, whose plans call for a 5,900-foot (1,800-meter) runway built partly on reclaimed land off the coast of Henoko, faces intense opposition from residents and environmentalists.
They said they would consider moving military training facilities off Okinawa, possibly to nearby Tokunoshima, or out of Japan completely. The accord called for more environmental stewardship, through which U.S. bases in Japan might incorporate renewable energy technology.
The governments still had lots of work to do, said Financial Affairs Minister Shizuka Kamei.
"The safety and noise reduction issues have not been resolved yet," he said.
The joint statement called for sensitivity to Okinawans' concerns.
"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.
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Associated Press writers Shino Yuasa and Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.