In a surprise about-face, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday agreed to an out-of-court settlement for three lawsuits filed over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
The settlement requires Tokyo to suspend land reclamation off the Henoko coast in Okinawa Prefecture, and Abe complied by ordering a halt.
It also requires the two parties to fight just one, unified court case on whether construction work should continue and to observe its ruling.
Tokyo says the work is needed to build a new facility for Futenma, but by settling, Abe is seen as trying to avoid getting bogged down in endless legal battles with the Okinawa Prefectural Government.
So far, Tokyo and Okinawa have thrown three lawsuits at each other.
In one of them, the central government sought to invalidate Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s cancellation of earlier permission for land reclamation.
Under the settlement, the central government and Okinawa Prefectural Government will unify the three lawsuits into one.
The two sides are also urged to abide by a future, final judicial decision over whether the Henoko project should continue.
The out-of-court settlement was first proposed by the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court on Jan. 29.
“Our position that the relocation to Henoko is the only option remains unchanged,” Abe told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office.
“If we and Okinawa Prefecture continue the lawsuits battle endlessly like now, it could end up in deadlock, and the Futenma base could remain fixed there for years. . . . Nobody wants that,” Abe said.
“That’s why we’ve made a decision to accept the out-of-court settlement proposal.”
Later in the day, the Okinawa Prefectural Government accepted Abe’s offer. It had indicated earlier that it would be willing to do so.
Acceptance of the settlement is a big compromise for Abe, who had insisted that Tokyo would continue construction work regardless of the battle in the courts.
During a news conference later Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga admitted that the relocation of Futenma will be delayed beyond the target year of 2020, even if everything goes well from now on.
Tokyo explained its decision to the U.S. authorities through diplomatic channels, Suga added.
Futenma is located in Ginowan, a residential neighborhood whose residents resent the constant aircraft noise and say they live in fear of aviation accidents.
In 1996, Tokyo and Washington agreed to move Futenma on condition that Tokyo builds an alternative facility.
It chose Henoko, but then ran into opposition from locals, which led to the present situation of delay, anger and legal retribution.
Abe has argued that moving Futenma to Henoko would bolster the Japan-U.S. military alliance, while Onaga wants the base kicked out of the prefecture altogether.
The Okinawa island chain includes the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, a flash point between China and Japan that has the potential for military confrontation.
Japanese officials have argued the presence of a powerful U.S. military force in Okinawa serves as a strong deterrent to actions by Beijing.
But Okinawa saw fierce ground battles during World War II, and anti-military sentiment remains strong in the region.
Many residents argue that mainland municipalities should share the burden of hosting the massive U.S. military force.
Currently about 18.2 percent of Okinawa’s main island is used by U.S. bases and related facilities, such as training areas.