TOKYO – The governor of Okinawa signed off Friday on the long-awaited relocation of a U.S. military base, a major step toward allowing the U.S. to move forward with plans to consolidate its troops on the southern Japanese islands and move some to Guam.
An Okinawa official confirmed that Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the Japanese Defense Ministry's application to reclaim land for a new military base on Okinawa's coast. It would replace the U.S. Marine Corps base in Futenma, a more congested part of Okinawa's main island.
Nakaima's decision could still face court challenges and protests. Opponents want the base moved off Okinawa completely.
"What the governor has done is unforgivable," said Yuichi Higa, the head of the assembly in Nago city, where the new base is to be built. "Residents who are opposed will surely resort to the use of force, such as blocking roads to stop this from happening."
The decision was politically difficult for Nakaima, because of the local opposition, and came only after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with him in Tokyo on Wednesday and offered him a package that included increased financial assistance for Okinawa.
The U.S. has had a major military presence in Okinawa dating from the end of World War II. About half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa, and many residents complain about base-related crime, noise and the risk of accidents.
The new base would be built in a part of Nago city called Henoko. It is part of an agreement to move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, including transferring 5,000 to Guam. The original agreement to close the Futenma base was signed in 1996, but it has been delayed repeatedly.