TOKYO — Japan's embattled prime minister apologized Sunday to the people of Okinawa that he is ditching his campaign promise to move a U.S. military base off the island — a concession that is likely to further erode his grip on power.
During his party's campaign for last year's elections that swept him to power, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had promised to relocate U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station off of Okinawa, perhaps even out of Japan.
But he has recently conceded that the government will be going back to an earlier plan, or a slightly modified version of that plan, chiseled by the former governing party: Building another base on Okinawa, but in a coastal area less crowded than the residential sector where Futenma is now located.
"The relocation of Futenma will have to stay in Okinawa," Hatoyama said in a meeting with Okinawa prefectural chief Hirokazu Nakaima. "I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the confusion that I have caused the people of Okinawa in not being able to keep my promise."
Many local leaders, including Nakaima, are opposed to keeping the military base on the semitropical island.
"I must tell you that your decision is extremely regrettable and very difficult to accept," Nakaima said.
The people of Okinawa have long complained about the noise, jet-crash dangers and worries about crime that come from housing more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, stationed under the bilateral defense alliance.
Hatoyama has seen his popularity ratings plunge in recent months — as voters increasingly are disenchanted with his failure to act on a number of campaign pledges, including the Futenma issue as well as promises for toll-free highways and cash payments for babies.
His biggest political ally, Ichiro Ozawa, the head of Hatoyama's Democratic Party, has been the target of allegations involving campaign fund abuse, although Ozawa has denied any wrongdoing and Japanese prosecutors have repeatedly said that they will not charge him.
But the failure to appease the people of Okinawa is likely to be Hatoyama's biggest problem as Japan heads into nationwide elections, which must be held sometime in July or close to that time.
The plan on Futenma's relocation, worked out between Japan and the U.S., was scheduled to be formally announced by Hatoyama Friday, according to Japanese media reports.
The new plan is still vague on details, but is clear that Henoko, the coastal area that was chosen in the original plan, will house the new base, the reports say.
Japanese government offices were closed over the weekend and officials were not available for comment on the reports.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has said that he discussed Futenma plans with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, while she was in Tokyo on Friday.