An aerial view of U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided Friday to suspend work to shift the runways to a less-populated part of the island. (Kazuhiko Yamashita/AP)

In a surprise move, Japan’s prime minister agreed Friday to suspend construction work at a planned U.S. Marine air station on Okinawa, where opponents have battled to block the project.

The decision was an about-face for the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who had vowed to continue landfill work at the site while legal battles played out. But there appeared to be no change in his long-range policy to relocate the air base within Okinawa.

Instead, Abe agreed to an ­out-of-court settlement on three lawsuits challenging the relocation of the U.S. Marine air station at Futenma, in the most crowded part of Okinawa, to Henoko, a remote, relatively unpopulated part of the main island.

As part of the deal, proposed by the courts, Abe agreed to suspend reclamation work at Henoko needed to build two runways that would jut into the sea.

“I have decided to accept the court’s mediation recommendation and settle with the Okinawa prefectural government,” Abe told reporters.


But any celebrations by opponents may be premature.

Abe’s move was an attempt to find a way out of the current legal mire, and the prime minister said he remained committed to the goal of relocating the air station.

“There is no change in the central government’s thinking that relocating the base to Henoko is the only alternative” to Futenma, Abe said. “If the current series of lawsuits continues endlessly, we will remain deadlocked and the Futenma base could remain there for years.”

The central government in Tokyo and authorities in Okinawa have been at loggerheads for 16 months since the southern island chain elected Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who vowed to stop the construction of the new air station.

Many Okinawans want the air station at Futenma closed and moved out of the prefecture rather than to the Henoko site. The small island chain bears too much of the burden of Japan’s security alliance with the United States, including all the noise, environmental damage and crime that comes with the bases, they say.

Groups of protesters demonstrate every day at the construction site, on an existing U.S. military base at Henoko, while the governor has overturned reclamation permits and used multiple bureaucratic opportunities to stall construction. Onaga has also been to Washington to make his case, but the Obama administration insists that this is an issue for Tokyo and Okinawa to work out between themselves.

The relocation plan has been delayed by two years until 2025, military chiefs say. The delays were “partly due to demonstrators and a lack of support by the government of Okinawa,” Gen. Robert B. Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, told a congressional hearing Wednesday.