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U.S. demanding higher 'sympathy budget' for military presence in Japan

The Japanese government plans to keep the so-called "sympathy budget" -- officially named "host nation support" -- from Japan to the United States to support American military bases here at current levels as it heads into final negotiations with the U.S.

    The two countries are working out Japan's financial commitment to the U.S. military presence for the five years starting in fiscal 2016. Currently, Japan pays the U.S. an average of 188.1 billion yen annually, though the fiscal 2015 amount hit some 189.9 billion yen to cover wage hikes recommended by the National Personnel Authority for Japanese employees on U.S. bases. The United States, however, is looking for an increase as it continues its "strategic rebalancing" toward the Asia-Pacific to address growing regional security concerns.

    The payment amounts are, as a general rule, set every five years, with the most recent agreement set to expire in March 2016. Negotiations on the coming half-decade of payments began in summer this year between Japanese and U.S. diplomats and defense officials at the vice-ministerial level.

    When talks began, Japan sought to reduce the amount it pays for base worker wages and utilities for on-base U.S. military housing, pointing to recently passed security legislation opening the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and the expected expansion in the Self-Defense Forces' regional role. The U.S., however, demanded more money to cover the costs of its rebalancing, including the deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft and Aegis-class naval vessels to Japan.

    "If (the government) continued to press the point, it could strain Japan-U.S. relations," one senior Defense Ministry official told the Mainichi Shimbun. That worry led Tokyo to propose simply keeping payments where they are now, but the U.S. has yet to accept the proposition. Japan had been looking to wrap up a final agreement this week.

    The "sympathy budget" payments began in fiscal 1978, and reached a high of 275.6 billion yen in fiscal 1999. The amount has been dropping slowly since then, though it has remained the same for the past two, five-year terms.

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