The Japanese government took the local government in Okinawa to court Tuesday, launching a legal battle in their longstanding dispute over the planned relocation of a U.S. military air base on the southern island.
A lawsuit filed in a regional high court in Okinawa seeks an injunction to overturn Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga's recent decision to cancel a previously issued approval for land reclamation work for the base relocation.
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.
Tokyo wants to move the U.S. Marines' Futenma base to a less developed area on the island called Henoko, but many Okinawa residents — whose home was the site of bloody battles near the end of World War II — resent hosting the U.S. military at all.
They feel Okinawa bears an unfair burden of the U.S. military presence in Japan. The prefecture houses more than half of the 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan and U.S. bases occupy nearly a fifth of the land on its main island.
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.
Onaga's predecessor approved the land reclamation, but then lost to him in a re-election bid. The central government sued Okinawa after Onaga refused to follow an order from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to reinstate approval for the work.
Japan briefly suspended the reclamation work earlier this year while seeking a compromise but has since resumed it.
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 with The Associated Press