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Newly appointed Defense Agency chief Kazuo Torashima has had to retract a remark that it would be difficult to put a 15-year time limit on the use of a new airport for the U.S. Marines to be built in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

Okinawa Prefecture is demanding the time limit as a condition for allowing construction of a replacement heliport for the Futenma Air Station, in Ginowan, central Okinawa. Washington opposes any time limit on U.S. use of the base.

In a rare move, Torashima called a news conference Wednesday night to withdraw a comment he made during an interview earlier in the day, when he noted that the 15-year time limit would be difficult because “it is very difficult, or maybe impossible, to predict what the international situation will be at that time.”

At this press conference, Torashima said the government should respect the request from the Okinawa prefectural and Nago municipal governments, adding that further negotiations with Washington will be needed in line with government policy.

“I believe the ideal solution is to reflect on the desires of the local people,” he said.

Torashima also emphasized the importance of creating mutual trust between the central government and Okinawa in alleviating the excessive presence of U.S. bases in the prefecture.

Okinawa, which accounts for 0.6 percent of Japan, hosts some 75 percent of the U.S. bases in Japan.

However, it remains to be seen if the central government’s friendly overtures work for Okinawans, many of whom strongly oppose the presence of the U.S. bases.

Torashima’s stance on the issue may have been affected by the appointment of Seiji Nakamura from Okinawa as a parliamentary vice minister.

Torashima, from an island in Nagasaki Prefecture, pledged that he will strive to win the trust of Okinawans, adding, “Some people in Okinawa believe (the Nago issue) is not between Japan and the U.S., but the Japanese government and Okinawa Prefecture.”

However, this remark during the earlier interview appears to run counter to his subsequent comment that the government will further negotiate with Washington in an effort to reflect Okinawans’ demands.

Torashima said later that his earlier comment was simply one of many viewpoints.

In his inauguration speech, the 72-year-old minister touched on the long-standing issue of drawing up legislation that will give the Self-Defense Forces the means to take proper action in the event of attacks or similar crises.

But he said discussions on the issue “remain at an administrative level and have not matured.”

The agency has been considering such legislation on a strictly advisory basis since 1977.

Although the government has long taken a cautious stance due to the sensitive nature of the issue, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has indicated a willingness to consider discussions on such legislation.

As to Japan’s host-nation support to help shoulder the expense of U.S. military operations here, Torashima said he will examine and improve Japan’s financial obligation in stages.

The host-nation support, dubbed the “sympathy budget” in Japan, began in fiscal 1978 when the U.S. economy was foundering and Japan’s cost of living had rocketed.

Tokyo has been negotiating with Washington for a reduction in the financial burden.

Torashima indicated that major modifications in bilateral arrangements would be difficult considering the effect they might have on the security alliance between Japan and the U.S.

“We have no choice but to take a cautious approach,” Torashima said.

The Special Measures Agreement, a five-year treaty that expires next March, stipulates that Japan must cover all yen-based costs incurred by U.S. forces in areas including labor, utilities and training relocation.

The two countries began negotiations in January on reviewing the treaty but remain at odds over Japan’s calls for streamlining and cost-cutting efforts by U.S. forces in light of Japan’s tight financial conditions.

Asked about North Korea, Torashima said he welcomed the recent inter-Korean summit.

Torashima has served as chairman of the ruling coalition’s project team to settle various unsolved problems relating to Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula, such as redress to those who were deprived of their rights to receive government compensation or pensions.