Japanese PM suspends construction of controversial US base in Okinawa

© Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP Files
Construction work on a new US airbase in Japan’s southern island of Okinawa is to be suspended, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday. Abe says the base needs to be built, but will engage in further dialogue with the Okinawa authorities.

"The government has decided to accept the court-mediated settlement plan," Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said, according to the Kyodo news agency.

The settlement plan was agreed with the Okinawa prefectural government and concerned landfill work, which needed to take place in order for the US military base to be built.

Tokyo has been locked in a war of words with the Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, who opposes a new base being built in the Henoko area of Nago. The US and Japan say the current US Marines’ Futenma airbase needs to be relocated to a less populated part of the island, but Onaga is adamant it will not be built in his prefecture.

Prime Minister Abe still believes the only option is to build the airbase in Henko, which is a sparsely populated coastal area in the north of Okinawa. However, he says the government will halt construction work and will try to reach a mutually acceptable solution with the Okinawan authorities.

Abe’s announcement to suspend the construction of the airbase came after the head of the US Marine Corps said the project to move the airbase from Futenma, which is in a built-up residential area, to Henko, was merely behind schedule.

General Robert Neller told Congress on Wednesday the project had been “delayed partly due to demonstrators and lack of support from the government of Okinawa,” the Japan Times reported.

Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Command, said he believed the plan to relocate the base would be delayed until 2025. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was irked by the admiral’s remarks remarks.

“We have never told the United States that there will be a delay in the Henoko relocation plan until 2025,” Suga told a parliamentary session.

Japan’s Defense Ministry had ordered work on the reclamation project to restart in October, after Governor Onaga revoked permission for the construction.

However, this has led to mass protests across the country. In February, thousands of demonstrators encircled Japan`s parliament in Tokyo to protest against the relocation. Over 28,000 people joined the rally, according to the Kyodo news agency. Opposition rallies were also held in the cities of Toyama, Okayama, Sapporo, Nagoya and Osaka.

“The central government is trying to force through landfill work to move the base to Henoko, but justice and righteousness are on our side,” Nago Mayor Susume Inamine said at the rally in Tokyo, according to the Japan Times.

The previous Okinawa governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, gave the green light for the relocation of the base in 2013. However, after Onaga won the elections in 2014, he promised to oppose the plan – to the delight of the majority of locals.

There has been tension for years between the local population and US servicemen. This dates back to a notorious crime committed in 1995, when three US marines kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl.

There have also been less-publicized sex crime cases involving underage victims reported in 2001 and 2005, the fatal running over of a female high school student by a drunken US marine in 1998, and other incidents.

Okinawa, home to about one percent of Japan’s population, hosts nearly half the 47,000 US troops based in Japan.