JAPAN – Okinawa’s Governor, Takeshi Onaga, has revoked permission for construction work to take place at the site planned for the facility.
The decision, which central government officials in Tokyo said they would appeal, is the latest setback for a 20-year effort by Japanese and American military planners to move the base, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, from its current location in the middle of a crowded Okinawan city to a less populated part of the island.
Mr. Abe has risked political resistance by reviving the relocation project, which is part of his broader focus on national security. Mr. Abe’s agenda, partly driven by concerns over the growing military power of China, is hawkish for a Japanese leader: Along with bolstering Japan’s already strong defense ties to the United States, he has lifted restrictions on arms exports, reversed a long decline in military spending and — most contentious — reinterpreted the pacifist Constitution to allow Japanese forces to undertake some types of combat missions overseas.
Residents’ frustration with their assigned role in Mr. Abe’s plans is also increasing, however.
At a news conference on Tuesday in the Okinawan capital of Naha, the governor, Takeshi Onaga, said that there were “legal flaws” with a permit issued by his predecessor that allows construction crews commissioned by the Japanese Defense Ministry to work in the coral-filled waters of Henoko Bay.
“I have sent notice that I am revoking permission,” he said.
Mr. Onaga wants the Marine base moved off Okinawa altogether. Okinawa is home to about 25,000 United States military personnel, more than half the total stationed throughout Japan. Most residents support the governor’s position, according to opinion surveys.
Though Mr. Onaga’s decision had been widely expected, several dozen demonstrators who had camped out in front of an existing United States military installation on Henoko Bay, Camp Schwab, broke into cheers after the announcement, in footage carried by Japanese news broadcasts. Camp Schwab would be greatly expanded under the relocation plan, with new runways extending into the bay. So far, little actual work has been done, but even preparatory surveys have drawn protests.
In Tokyo, officials said they would seek to have Mr. Onaga’s decision overruled. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has ultimate jurisdiction over the type of construction permit revoked by the governor — meaning the government would, in effect, be appealing to itself.
Experts said the matter would most likely end up in court. Judges’ decisions and the inevitable appeals could take years, and it was unclear whether work on the new base could continue in the meantime or would remain frozen.
Masakazu Aharen, a professor at Shizuoka University, said getting Mr. Onaga’s decision overruled could be politically costly for Mr. Abe. The prime minister’s poll ratings fell this summer after he pushed a set of national security bills through Parliament over widespread voter opposition. Ignoring popular sentiment on Okinawa could add to his reputation for imperiousness.
“It’s a very big decision,” Professor Aharen said. He added that the law that would allow Mr. Onaga’s decision to be challenged was intended to be used by regular people aggrieved by municipal policies, not by officials at other levels of government. “The law is supposed to protect citizens,” he said.