Tokyo (AFP) – Japanese officials in Okinawa on Friday approved the long-stalled relocation of a controversial U.S. military base, a breakthrough that could remove a running sore in relations between Tokyo and Washington.
More than 17 years after the two allies agreed to move the U.S. Marines’ Futenma Air Station from a densely populated urban area, the local government has finally consented to a landfill that will enable new facilities to be built on the coast.
The agreement will burnish the credentials of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the U.S., possibly taking some of the sting out of American criticism of his provocative visit Thursday to a war shrine seen by China and Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism.
The issue has been deadlocked for years, with huge opposition to any new base among Okinawans fed up with playing host to an outsized share of the U.S. military presence in Japan, and who want it moved off the island altogether.
Okinawa’s governor Hirokazu Nakaima, long a thorn in the central government’s side, this week met Abe, who pledged a big cash injection into the island’s economy every year until 2021.
He emerged from the meeting declaring himself impressed with the package on offer, which includes a pledge to work towards the shuttering of Futenma within five years, and on Friday gave it his formal seal of approval.
“The imminent issue for us on Okinawa is to remove the dangerous airbase from the heart of the town as soon as possible,” Nakaima told reporters.
“The prime minister is saying the government will work towards halting the Futenma operation within five years.”
Abe praised Nakaima for making a “courageous decision”, while Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said the government “will do its utmost to relocate the base to Camp Schwab as quickly as possible”.
But the news provoked anger in Okinawa, where thousands of protesters surrounded the local government office, media reports said, with footage showing demonstrators holding banners reading: “Never bend”.
Several hundred had stormed the lobby of the building and were staging a sit-in protest, a government spokeswoman said.