Okinawa's governor on Tuesday revoked approval for work needed to relocate a U.S. air base from one area of the southern Japanese island to another, but the Tokyo government said it would still proceed with the plan.
Tokyo wants to move the U.S. Marines' Futenma base to a less developed area on the island called Henoko, but many residents — whose home was the site of bloody battles near the end of World War II — resent hosting the U.S. military at all.
Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who was elected last year on promises to fight the move, revoked the local approval given in 2013 by his predecessor on the grounds of "legal defects."
"The permit was flawed. We decided that rescinding it was reasonable," he told a news conference in Okinawa.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and local officials have been at loggerheads for months over the base’s relocation, sparking protests from tens of thousands around Japan concerned about the base’s impact on the local economy and environment.
Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday rejected Onaga's position, saying Futenma must be moved for safety reasons.
“Revoking the approval is extremely regrettable, as it ignores the efforts made so far by officials in Okinawa and the central government to eliminate the risks posed by the Futenma base,” Suga was quoted as saying by Japan’s Kyodo news agency.
Suga added that the government plans to proceed with the move, regardless.
The central government suspended the relocation project on Aug. 10 to allow for a month of talks to reach a compromise with the Okinawan government, but that proved to be too short of a period to resolve the political fighting, and the project resumed last month despite strong protests by local residents and activists at the site.
The defense minister, Gen. Nakatani, said work on the site would be suspended, but that it would restart as soon as possible. He planned to request an investigation and seek a court injunction to overturn Onaga's revocation.
Okinawa houses more than half of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan and U.S. bases occupy nearly a fifth of the land on its main island. But the local government says the bases are a drain on the economy, providing less than 5 percent of its business activity and employing only 1.4 percent of its workers.
A leaflet issued by the Okinawa government shows significant gains in the local economy from areas already redeveloped once land was returned by the U.S. military.
But safety concerns appear to be the main factor behind plans to move Futenma's airfield, which is surrounded by a largely residential area, including schools and hospitals.
The U.S. side says it is committed to the base relocation and views it as important to the health of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
"This construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility and Camp Schwab is the meaningful result of many, many years of sustained work between the U.S. and Japan. It's a critical step toward realizing our shared vision for the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news conference in Washington.
The dispute over relocating Futenma symbolizes centuries-old tensions between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland, which annexed the islands, formerly the independent kingdom of the Ryukyus, in 1879. In the final days of World War II, Okinawa became Japan's only home battleground, and the island remained under U.S. rule for 20 years longer than Japan's 1952 emergence from the American occupation.
Al Jazeera and wire services