YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- In the most sweeping re-examination of the U.S.-Japan security alliance in years, Japan and the United States are negotiating a military realignment that could move some or all of the nearly 20,000 Marines off the crowded island of Okinawa, close underused bases and meld an Army command in Washington state with a camp just south of Tokyo.
But something even more fundamental may be at stake.
With its own military spread thin, Washington appears to be trying to use the talks to nudge Japan out from under the U.S. security blanket and make Tokyo a much more active player in global strategic operations.
It would not be an easy transition if the realignment is approved.
America's force of 50,000-plus troops in Japan dates back decades and has long been hailed by both sides as the key to stability in the Asian-Pacific region and a model of cooperation. In exchange for the security the U.S. troops provide, Japan pays a whopping $5 billion, an arrangement unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Few expect Japan to see the kind of drastic restructuring and downsizing that the U.S. forces in South Korea and Germany are going through. Wright stressed he did not expect a great change -- up or down -- in the overall number of troops here.
Their footprint may change substantially, however.
According to reports in the Japanese media, based on anonymous government leaks, the idea has even been floated of moving the biggest contingent of Marines based permanently outside the United States from southern Okinawa to Japan's other extreme, the northern island of Hokkaido.
Reports have also speculated that the fighter wing of the USS Kittyhawk's battle group may be uprooted and sent south.
Ahead of a set of meetings in Hawaii this weekend, Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono said the future of unused or underused facilities would be discussed. But officials on both sides refuse to comment on specifics, saying only that a broad range of proposals are being considered and no final decisions have been made.
Wright said whatever changes come out of the talks will not weaken the United States' military readiness in Asia.
"Interoperability" -- the focus on joint operations -- underscores a change in the way Tokyo and Washington are viewing their military relationship.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been a staunch backer of President Bush and was the driving force in Japan's decision to send several hundred troops to Iraq. He also advocates a more active role for Japan's Self-Defense Forces and supports a revision of the post-World War II constitution, which bans the use of military force to settle international disputes.
Developments in Asia have strengthened his hand: communist North Korea's nuclear ambitions, China's rapid rise as the region's military and economic power, and the withering of Russia's navy in the Pacific.
At the same time, Koizumi is under pressure to lighten the burden borne by Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of the U.S. troops, and any troop reduction would be a political coup for him and offer a chance for Tokyo to use its own military to fill the void.
Still, Tokyo appears undecided on just how far it should go, and for good reason: Because of their country's disastrous pre-1945 experiment with expansionism, many Japanese remain deeply suspicious of any attempts to rebuild the military. Japan's neighbors, who suffered under Japanese colonialism, are also wary of the direction the talks are taking.
"The U.S. will definitely expect Japan to be actively involved in the political and military affairs in the region. This will probably prompt strong reactions from neighboring countries such as China and Korea," said Toshihiro Nakayama, a political analyst with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a private think tank.
"They will perceive this as a new attempt by Japan to rise as a military power in the region."