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Japan's Premier Likely to Sign Base Pacts : Asia: Statement by Murayama is step toward resolving problem of U.S. military on Okinawa. Governor refuses to force landowners to renew leases.

November 05, 1995|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Faced with a firm refusal by Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota to force unwilling property owners to renew land leases for U.S. military bases on the southern island, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama indicated Saturday that he will take the action himself.

Murayama's statement moves Japan and the United States a step closer toward resolving legal problems affecting the bases on Okinawa, home to 75% of the U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Clear progress toward settling the land-lease issue has been seen as an important prerequisite for a smooth Tokyo summit Nov. 20 between Murayama and President Clinton. At the summit, Clinton and Murayama are expected to issue a reaffirmation of the two nations' security alliance.

But in a sign that the debate over U.S. troops in Okinawa will not fade away quickly, Murayama and Ota agreed Saturday to create a high-level consultative body between the national and Okinawan governments that would consider ways to trim back the American presence on the island.

When Defense Secretary William J. Perry visited here last week, Washington and Tokyo agreed to set up a similar committee to explore ways to reduce the intrusiveness of the bases. But Ota and many Okinawans have been pressing for changes far beyond anything Washington is willing to consider, and Ota has used his resistance on the lease issue to press these demands.

"The governor reiterated his refusal to sign the documents," Murayama said Saturday after a five-hour meeting with Ota. "I can fully understand the governor's stance and his consideration of people in his prefecture. So I will make a judgment on the matter myself."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Koken Nosaka had previously indicated that, if necessary, Murayama would exercise his legal authority to renew the leases. Many leases on land required for the bases expire in March, 1996, and May, 1997.

Under Japanese law, if owners of land needed for U.S. bases are unwilling to rent, the governor has the authority to overrule them. If the governor refuses, authority passes to the prime minister.

Ota said he believes that Murayama will force the renewal of the leases. But in looking toward the 21st Century, Ota said, he wants Okinawa to be transformed to "a peaceful island."

"My goal in coming to Tokyo was to frankly say that as the person with responsibility for the Okinawan government, I cannot sign," Ota said. "Signing would mean I support the U.S. strategy to cement and strengthen the U.S. military bases. I will maintain my position in the future too. The rest is up to the premier over how the matter will be dealt with."

Sentiment against the bases in Okinawa--which take up about 20% of the island's land--was inflamed by the September rape of a 12-year-old girl, allegedly by three U.S. military men. Their trial is set to begin Tuesday. During his visit, Perry issued a profusely worded apology for the rape.

Among the demands Ota presented to Murayama were enforcement of Japanese noise and pollution laws against U.S. bases and a ban on off-base marching by U.S. troops. The Okinawan government is also seeking a reduction in the land area used by the bases.

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