October 13, 2015 / 5:39 AM / in 2 years

Growing Japan row over U.S. air base presents election risk for PM Abe

TOKYO (Reuters) - A row between Tokyo and Japan’s Okinawa over a contentious U.S. air base deepened on Tuesday when Okinawa’s governor revoked a work permit for a new site, while the government said it was considering legal action to push ahead.

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga (L) talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's office in Tokyo August 7, 2015. REUTERS/Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool

Tokyo wants to move the U.S. Marines’ Futenma base to another location on the southern island, but many Okinawa residents - whose home was the site of bloody battles near the end of World War Two - resent hosting the U.S. military at all.

The two sides have been at loggerheads for months, sparking protests from tens of thousands around Japan, and perceptions of bullying from the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could dent Abe’s support ratings ahead of an election next year.

Anti-base Okinawan governor Takeshi Onaga, who has accused Abe of looking down on Okinawa, revoked the permit issued by his predecessor for key landfill construction work needed to build the new base.

“The permit was flawed. We decided that rescinding it was reasonable,” he told a news conference in Okinawa.

The government countered by saying it would ignore Onaga’s decision, since the previous governor had approved the work, and was looking into legal action.

“The previous governor made an administrative decision, so we believe there’s no problem,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

“We are a country of law, and based on the concept of administrative continuity, we believe it’s only natural to go ahead with the construction.”

The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close Futenma, located in a densely populated area that the central government says makes it one of the “most dangerous airports in the world”, but plans to move it stalled due to opposition from Okinawa residents worried about noise, pollution and crime.

“The Okinawan decision ignores all the efforts that have been made both by both Okinawa and the central government to minimize the danger of Futenma,” Suga said. “So it is quite unfortunate.”

Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Nick Macfie

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