Tokyo urges Okinawa governor to back down in US base row

TOKYO (AFP) - Shinzo Abe's right-hand man on Sunday urged the governor of Okinawa to concede in a lingering row over the construction of a US air base ahead of the Japanese prime minister's visit to Washington later this month.

The base's construction, first mooted in 1996, has been stymied by local opposition from islanders who say they bear a disproportionate burden in hosting more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan.

In the latest twist in the two-decade row, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told Governor Takeshi Onaga: "We hope to get your understanding on the plan... for maintaining the deterrent power of the Japan-US alliance."

However, the Okinawan governor countered that while he understood the importance of the alliance with the US, any national security plan must have the Japanese people's support.

"Okinawa never voluntarily offered (land) for bases. I'm convinced that it is impossible to construct a new base", Onaga said, referring to a plan to replace the urban Futenma Air Base with one on a rural coastline at Nago.

The anti-base camp - who want the base off Okinawa - struck a blow late last month when Onaga said coral just outside the permitted zone at the site on the island's northeast coast had been damaged and demanded a halt to the work.

The central government last week muscled the governor out of the way, suspending his stop-work order, and ahead of Abe's week-long US tour starting April 28, which will focus on deepening trade and military ties.

Abe and Onaga will meet before the US tour, the Mainichi Shinbun reported, citing unnamed sources from the Okinawa government.

Fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Monday defanged the stop-work order with a suspension while the issue is probed, effectively kicking it into the long grass.

The once-independent kingdom of Okinawa was annexed by Japan in the 19th century and was under US control from the end of World War II in 1945 until 1972.

While most Japanese value the protection the US alliance gives them, especially in the context of Beijing's growing regional assertiveness, a sizable proportion of Okinawans want a dramatic reduction in their numbers.

The shuttering of Futenma and the opening of a replacement base at Nago, 50 km away, was first agreed in 1996 as the US sought to soothe local anger after the gang-rape of a schoolgirl by servicemen.

But it has been stymied ever since, with local protesters blocking the move, arguing that any new base should be built elsewhere in Japan or abroad.

In 2013, Onaga's predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima, formerly a staunch opponent, dropped his objection to the new base after Tokyo promised a hefty annual cash injection to the local economy.

Many islanders saw this as a betrayal and in November kicked him out of office in favour of Onaga.