Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the governor of Okinawa prefecture that expanding other U.S. military facilities on the island is the only way to shift a Marine air base out of an urban area.
The two met in Tokyo on Friday for the first time after Takeshi Onaga won office in November vowing to oppose the offshore construction plan, a stance polls show is backed by his constituents. Last month he ordered a halt to seabed boring surveys, saying that environmental conditions had been violated. The central government said work would continue.
Air operations at Futenma, the Marine base in Ginowan city, have become a point of contention as population growth has surrounded the facility with commercial and residential development. Japan and the U.S. agreed to move the base to a less-populated district on the central coast, a plan that failed to appease those who want it removed completely from Okinawa, and also aroused opposition on environmental grounds.
Abe is seeking to strengthen security ties with the U.S. amid a territorial dispute with an increasingly assertive China over uninhabited islands that fall under Okinawa’s administration. The fresh wrangling over the base comes as an embarrassment ahead of Abe’s meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington later this month.
Onaga told reporters after the meeting he urged Abe to tell Obama about local opposition to the plan, and that islanders had “never once offered to host the bases.”
The Okinawa governor said Saturday in Naha, the prefectural capital, that he wants to travel to Washington at an early date to talk directly to U.S. lawmakers about halting the plan, public broadcaster NHK reported on its website.
Demonstrators have scuffled with security guards outside a U.S. Marine base on the island in recent weeks. Okinawa plays host to about half the roughly 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, on about 0.6 percent of the nation’s total land mass. Residents complain of noise, crime, pollution and accidents connected with the bases.