TOKYO, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington remains committed to relocating the U.S. military Okinawa air base but the move must be strategically appropriate for the United States.
"We hope to move forward with the relocation of U.S. forces in Okinawa in ways that are more appropriate to our strategic posture while reducing the impact on the communities nearby," Gates said.
Gates, who was in Japan after spending four days in China, said despite tensions over the Futenma Air Base next to Okinawa City, the U.S.-Japan alliance remains strong.
Even so, the base with its 4,000 U.S. Marines is a politically sensitive issue for local Okinawa politicians as well as those in the national government in Tokyo.
"We do understand that it is politically a complex matter in Japan," Gates said. "And we intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account."
Residents and protest groups periodically demonstrate in the streets to have the base removed -- sooner rather than later -- and preferably not to have it all on Okinawa.
Gates's comments, made after meeting with Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, leave the door open for moving the base off Okinawa, something that Washington has been keen to avoid in the past. During his visit to Tokyo in October 2009, Gates urged the government of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to keep the base on Okinawa.
Safety issues regarding military aircraft and problems with interactions between the local population and troops in the past several years have raised tensions.
Last summer the base celebrated 65 years of existence. It was established among the ruins of small villages and surrounding farmland in the aftermath of fierce fighting between Japanese and U.S. troops in 1945 in the battle to capture the string of islands.
Around 145,000 Japanese soldiers died as well as 95,000 civilians and 90 percent of the island's buildings were destroyed in what was the largest amphibious assault in the war.
But the Marine Corps base of Futenma now is in the center of Ginowan City, a major suburb of Okinawa City. The base and its 9,000-foot runway cover 1,200 acres -- about one-quarter of the area of Ginowan City.
Being so close to a major urban area has created social problems, critics of the base's location claim. The most notable issue was the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl by three U.S. soldiers in 1995.
There also have been an increasing number of complaints about general noise levels of aircraft and especially concerns about safety.
In August 2004 a CH-53 helicopter grazed a university building in Ginowan before crashing and catching fire. Three crew members were injured as well as some civilians but there were no deaths.
During celebrations in June marking the 65th anniversary of the base, and mindful of local sensitivities over its existence, Japan's new Prime Minister Naoto Kan apologized for "the burden" of the base on the people of Okinawa.
"I offer an apology as a representative of all Japanese people,'' Kan said. "On behalf of all of our people, I apologize for the burden. I promise to seriously try all the more to reduce Okinawa's burden related to the U.S. bases and eliminate the associated dangers."
But Kan also expressed his ''appreciation,'' saying that Okinawa by accepting the U.S. military presence had helped secure peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said in his speech during the ceremony he "would like the burden to be visibly reduced." He also said he wanted the hosting of U.S. bases in Japan to be shared among all Japanese people, a veiled message that moving the bases to the mainland would be acceptable.
Kan said he will respect the Japan-U.S. accord announced in May to move Futenma Air Base from its crowded residential area to a less populated coastal area on the island.
The next stop on Gates's itinerary is South Korea.