TOKYO — A battle over the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa escalated Tuesday when the governor of the Japanese island revoked a permit for the new construction site.
The central government in Tokyo vowed to fight the governor’s decision, but Tuesday’s action was the latest complication to bedevil the U.S. military’s efforts to build a new base on Okinawa.
“To fulfill my pledge not to let any more bases to be built, I will continue to tackle this issue to the best of my ability,” said Takeshi Onaga, the governor of Okinawa, an island prefecture 200 miles south of the Japanese mainland.
Onaga was elected late last year on a promise to stop construction of the new U.S. Marine base at Henoko, on a remote and unspoiled bay in the northern part of Okinawa island. It is envisaged as a replacement for the current facility at Futenma, which is in the middle of a densely populated part of the main island.
Onaga’s predecessor had given the Okinawa Defense Bureau, part of the central Defense Ministry, permission to reclaim land at Henoko for the new base construction, which would involve building runways out into the water.
But Onaga said an independent report on the legality of the permit had concluded that there were legal flaws in the process. “We judged that a revocation of the permit would be appropriate and sent a notice of revocation to the Okinawa Defense Bureau director today,” he said Tuesday at a news conference.
In Tokyo, the government said it would press ahead regardless.
“The Defense Ministry finds that there was no legal flaw with the reclamation permit and our position remains the same: Governor Onaga’s revocation measure is illegal,” Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said.
“We will suspend the relocation operation but will take measures to resume it as soon as possible,” he said.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to appeal to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The fight appears likely to end up in court.
Over the summer, Tokyo and Okinawa had tried to come to some agreement over how to resolve their standoff.
Onaga earlier went to Washington to appeal directly for construction to stop, but the Pentagon insists that it has an agreement with Tokyo and that this is an internal dispute for Japan to resolve.
Many Okinawans are fed up with bearing the overwhelming burden of Japan’s military alliance with the United States, saying that Okinawa comprises less than 1 percent of the country’s land mass but houses 75 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan.
The Futenma base has been particularly controversial because it is seen as a danger to the surrounding city. A military helicopter crashed onto the nearby campus of Okinawa International University in 2004.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.