TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan said on Tuesday it was suspending construction of a contentious U.S. air base on the island of Okinawa for a month to give time for talks between the central government and island authorities opposed to the facility.
Residents of Okinawa, the site of bloody battles between U.S. and Japanese forces near the end of World War Two, have long objected to tens of thousands of U.S. troops and U.S. military installations on 18 percent of their island.
The island’s governor, Takeshi Onaga, won election last year largely on his stand against U.S. bases, and has accused Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of looking down on the island and its people.
The government wants to move the U.S. Marines’ Futenma base to another location on the southern island but Onaga and many residents want rid of it altogether.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the break in construction would enable the two sides to “thoroughly discuss” the issue.
“The government will once again explain its thoughts on the relocation to the Okinawan side as part of concentrated discussions toward a solution,” he told a news conference.
But Suga said there was no change in the government’s stance.
The suspension of construction effectively takes the emotive issue off the table while the government pushes sensitive security bills through parliament.
A majority of Japanese oppose the security bills, which could allow Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two and are key to Prime Minister Abe’s push for a more robust security stance.
The legislation has passed parliament’s lower house and is being debated in the upper chamber, but it has dragged down Abe’s support rate to less than 40 percent.
Political commentator Atsuo Ito said Abe could not take such a hard line on the Okinawa base now that his popularity had been hit by the security bills.
“The government is really backed into a corner,” Ito said.
“While Abe’s support rate was high, he went ahead even in the face of opposition, but with his support down ... it’s much harder to take a strong stance.”
Ito said that with emotions running high on Okinawa, it was unlikely the suspension of construction would significantly soften Onaga’s opposition.
“The central government is trying to be flexible, in the hope Okinawa will respond in kind,” Ito said. “But it’s unlikely that Onaga will back down much, so progress may be difficult.”
Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Robert Birsel