Japan to suspend construction for US base relocation in Okinawa

People hold banners during a rally against the construction of a new US military base in Okinawa, in Tokyo, Japan on Feb 21, 2016.
People hold banners during a rally against the construction of a new US military base in Okinawa, in Tokyo, Japan on Feb 21, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) – The Japanese government said on Friday it had accepted a court-mediated settlement plan to halt construction work related to the relocation of a US airbase in Okinawa and resume talks with local authorities who want the base off the island.

The government in Tokyo and authorities in the southern island of Okinawa have long been at loggerheads over the relocation of the US Marines’ Futenma airbase, located in an urban area on the island.

Tokyo wants to move the base to a less populated area on the island, called Henoko, but Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga wants the base off the island altogether.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government had already suspended construction work voluntarily for a month last year to allow time for talks with island authorities, but failed to achieve a meaningful solution.

Okinawa, the site of a bloody World War II land battle, hosts the bulk of US military forces in Japan and many residents resent what they see as an unfair burden.

US military installations take up about 18 per cent of land on the Okinawa island, prompting some residents to argue they are stifling their daily lives and opportunities for economic growth.

The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close Futenma and move its facilities elsewhere on the island. However, relocation stalled due to opposition from local residents worried about noise, pollution and crime.

In 1995, a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl was raped by three US servicemen in Okinawa, sparking huge protests.

Despite agreeing on a new round of talks, both Abe and Onaga were quick to stress that they were determined to stick to their respective stances on the base relocation, underscoring tough negotiations ahead.

“There is no change to the government’s stance that the relocation to the Henoko area is the sole choice for the restoration of the Futenma base,” Abe told reporters.

“But, if the current situation, in which the government and Okinawa prefecture are suing each other, continues, the Futenma base ... might very well remain fixed there for years to come,” he said.

Governor Onaga, who once accused Abe of looking down on Okinawa, said after his meeting with Abe, “I was elected governor on the platform of not allowing a new base in Henoko... I will keep pursuing this policy with confidence.”