In a surprise move, the central government said Tuesday it will suspend for one month all ongoing construction work related to building a replacement facility for U.S. Marines Air Station Futenma.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the central government will conduct “intensive talks” with Okinawa during the month to exchange views on the controversial relocation project in Nago on the northern part of Okinawa Island.
The moratorium will run from next Monday to Sept. 9.
Suga, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-hand man, said he and Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga will meet at some point during the construction moratorium.
Prior to the announcement, Suga had repeatedly said Tokyo would proceed with the construction work despite Onaga’s staunch opposition.
The central government appears determined to resume the construction work once the moratorium ends. The Abe administration apparently hopes to use the period to reduce the political friction with Okinawa awhile facing a number of politically sensitive issues.
The administration, which has seen its approval rating plummet in recent weeks, is busy pushing for enactment of the controversial security bills in the Upper House.
Many liberal intellectuals and citizens critical of the bills are also opposed to the Futenma relocation within Okinawa. These critics believe the project will increase the prefecture’s burden of hosting the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan and expand Japan’s logistical support for U.S. military operations overseas.
Tokyo and Washington have agreed to relocate the Futenma base, now located in Ginowan, central Okinawa, to the Henoko area of Nago because the air base currently sits in the middle of a densely populated area.
The governor and a majority of Okinawans have called for relocation of the base outside the prefecture, saying residents on the mainland should share the burden of hosting U.S. military bases.
But the prefectural government has another good reason to welcome Suga’s proposal: economics.
Okinawa and Tokyo are now holding talks on the central government’s budget allocation for economic development in the prefecture, and Onaga plans to meet with Abe on Friday in Tokyo.
On Tuesday, Onaga told a news conference in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, that during the one-month moratorium he will not revoke a land-reclamation permit that the last governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, issued to prepare for the new base construction.
Onaga had previously indicated that he would revoke the permit, which would put Tokyo and Okinawa on a direct collision course in the courts.
“A road for dialogue has been opened and construction will be stopped,” Onaga was quoted as saying. “That’s a positive step.”
But Onaga at the same time reiterated his determination to block the relocation project by every means at his disposal.
During Tuesday’s news conference in Tokyo, Suga said the central government will negotiate with the U.S. military in Okinawa to allow the prefectural government to conduct an investigation into coral reefs at the relocation site that were reportedly damaged during earlier construction work.
Many citizens opposed to the land reclamation have called for protection of the Henoko area’s natural environment.
Onaga, who was elected on a platform of halting the Futenma relocation project, demanded the central government halt the construction work and allow the prefecture to investigate the alleged coral damage.