TOKYO The Japanese government said on Friday it had accepted a court-mediated settlement plan to halt construction work related to the relocation of a U.S. airbase on Okinawa and resume talks with local authorities who want the base off the island.
The Tokyo government and authorities in Okinawa have long been at loggerheads over relocation of the U.S. Marines' Futenma airbase, which is in an urban area of the southern island.
Tokyo wants to move the base to a less populated area, called Henoko, but Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga wants the base off the island altogether.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government had already suspended construction work voluntarily for a month last year to allow time for talks with island authorities, but failed to achieve a meaningful solution.
Okinawa, the site of a bloody World War Two land battle, hosts the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan, and many residents resent what they see as an unfair burden. U.S. installations take up about 18 percent of Okinawa's land.
The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close Futenma and move its facilities elsewhere on Okinawa, but the plan stalled due to opposition from residents worried about noise, pollution and crime.
In 1995, a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl was raped by three U.S. servicemen on Okinawa, sparking huge protests.
Despite agreeing on a new round of talks, both Abe and Onaga were quick to stress their determination to stick to their respective stances on the base relocation, underscoring tough negotiations ahead.
"There is no change to the government's stance that the relocation to the Henoko area is the sole choice for the restoration of the Futenma base," Abe told reporters.
"But, if the current situation, in which the government and Okinawa prefecture are suing each other, continues, the Futenma base ... might very well remain fixed there for years to come," he said.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said both the U.S. and Japanese governments remained committed to the plan to construct the replacement facility.
"It is the only solution that addresses operational, political, financial and strategic concerns; that permits the operational readiness of our forward-positioned Marine forces and avoids the continued use of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma," Kirby told a regular news briefing.
Onaga, who once accused Abe of looking down on Okinawa, said after their meeting: "I was elected governor on the platform of not allowing a new base in Henoko. ... I will keep pursuing this policy with confidence."
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Kim Coghill, Paul Tait and Leslie Adler)