Japan to Suspend Work at Controversial U.S. Base in Okinawa

  • Prime Minister Abe said he wants to end fight with island
  • Wrangling over base relocation has dragged on for two decades

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed Friday to suspend work to expand a U.S. base on the southern island of Okinawa, in a bid to end an ongoing fight with the island’s government and people over the issue.

Abe told reporters in Tokyo that his government will adhere to a court recommendation to settle several lawsuits over the controversial expansion off the coast in Henoko, where landfill work had been carried out to prepare for the building of new runways. The prime minister said he wanted to find a way to relieve the burden of the U.S. bases on the island for the people of Okinawa.

At the core of the dispute is the planned move of the centrally located Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the less populated Henoko area in the north of the island. The wrangling over the relocation has dragged on for nearly two decades, and is one of the few areas of tension between the governments in Tokyo and Washington. Successive Japanese administrations have struggled to fulfill alliance expectations at the same time as quelling local anger.

The move comes amid a territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the main island of Okinawa. China said Friday it would increase its defense spending by 7 percent to 8 percent in 2016.

Aerial photo of Air Station Futenma taken in 2008.
Aerial photo of Air Station Futenma taken in 2008.
Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Rubik’s Cube

Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan campus in Tokyo, said that while Friday’s announcement is unlikely to put the issue completely to bed, Abe has built up sufficient capital with Washington to put the relocation on hold.

"The relocation issue is like a Rubik’s Cube without a solution," Dujarric said. "The issue of Futenma still remains. Everyone know there is the potential for an accident there, but there aren’t many places in Japan where the people would agree to having a base."

Okinawa is a critical part of the U.S. military presence in Asia, playing host to about half the roughly 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, the biggest deployment of American forces outside the home front. While U.S. forces may offer a welcome deterrent against China’s increasing muscle, many Okinawans complain of noise, crime, pollution and accidents connected with the bases.

A majority of respondents to a nationwide Asahi Shimbun survey last year were critical of Tokyo’s handling of the issue.

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