Okinawa, JAPAN - Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama flew to the southern island of Okinawa for talks with local leaders on Tuesday in a last ditch effort to resolve a row over a US Marine base before an end-of-May deadline.
People look out over US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan on Okinawa May 3, 2010. [Agencies]
The feud over relocating the Futenma Marine base has shaken ties with Washington and contributed to Hatoyama's tumbling support rates ahead of an upper house election his Democratic Party must win to avoid policy deadlock.
While Hatoyama began a day of consultations and visits to military bases, Japanese and US officials were holding talks in Tokyo about the relocation, Kyodo news agency said.
On his first visit to Okinawa since taking office last year, the floundering premier hopes to persuade islanders to accept a plan that would enable the closure of Futenma, whose city-centre location is considered a danger to local residents.
Polls show voters think Hatoyama lacks the ability to take tough decisions, so he is likely anxious to be seen taking the lead on a thorny issue like Futenma.
Pulling off a deal might give him a boost at the polls, but an angry reaction from local people could further damage support, already battered by financial scandals in the ruling party, ahead of the upper house election expected in July.
Hundreds of demonstrators shouting: "Hatoyama, keep your promises!" gathered outside the city hall in Naha ahead of a meeting between Hatoyama and governor Hirokazu Nakaima.
Last month tens of thousands of people gathered on the island to call for the base to be moved off Okinawa, which plays host to about half the 49,000 US military personnel in Japan.
The United States wants to go ahead with a 2006 agreement to shift Futenma's facilities to a site off Camp Schwab, another Marine base in a more remote part of Okinawa.
But Hatoyama raised hopes during his election campaign last year that the base could be shifted off the island altogether and set himself an end of May deadline to find a solution acceptable to all.
He has not officially revealed his proposal, but domestic media say he wants to compromise by shifting some Futenma Marines to the tiny island of Tokunoshima, northeast of Okinawa, while altering plans for a new runway off Camp Schwab to reduce the environmental impact.