Japan’s fisheries minister has overruled an order by the Okinawa governor suspending work on a new US military base, in a growing stand-off.
Governor Takeshi Onaga ordered work to stop at the site in northern Okinawa last week pending a wildlife survey.
But the central government strongly backs the controversial project and has ordered preliminary work to continue.
Okinawa, Japan’s southern-most prefecture, is home to about 26,000 US troops and several bases.
The row centres around the long-delayed plan to relocate Futenma airbase, which sits in a heavily populated area of central Okinawa.
Residents want the base closed and the Japanese government has proposed moving it to a more remote northern part of Okinawa’s main island, on reclaimed land off a US military base called Camp Schwab.
But many local residents reject this, highlighting the area’s rich offshore environment. Opponents want the base moved off Okinawa altogether, arguing that the island hosts far more than its fair share of the US military presence in Japan.
Many residents also associate the US bases with accidents and crime, and the 1995 gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl by US troops hardened local attitudes on the issue.
Mr Onaga won the Okinawa gubernatorial election in November 2014 on an anti-base platform.
Both Tokyo and Washington, however, are pushing strongly for the relocation, which has been stalled for years, to go ahead. Preliminary site work began in August 2014.
Last week Mr Onaga ordered local defence ministry officials to stop underwater survey work – approved by his predecessor – over fears it was harming coral reefs outside the permitted work area.
The central government described his move as “very regrettable” and, on Monday, Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi suspended Mr Onaga’s stop-work order.
He said delaying work on the base risked “great damage to diplomacy and defence policy by having a negative impact on the Japan-US relationship, as well as affecting residents near Futenma”.
Mr Onaga said he would study the minister’s position and then hold a press conference, Kyodo news agency reported.