TOKYO — The governor of Okinawa gave the go-ahead Friday for a new U.S. military base on the southern Japanese island, but opponents threatened lawsuits and protests to block it.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomed the decision, calling it "the most significant milestone" so far in a long-running fight to realign U.S. forces in Okinawa.
The new base is designed to reduce the impact of the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa by replacing another base in a more congested area, but opponents want the operations moved off Okinawa completely.
"What the governor has done is unforgivable," Yuichi Higa, the head of the assembly in Nago city, said in a phone interview. Nago would house the new base.
"Residents who are opposed will surely resort to the use of force, such as blocking roads, to stop this," he said.
Hiroshi Ashitomi, head of a Nago group opposing the base, said his organization would file a lawsuit challenging the decision.
Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima on Friday approved the Japanese Defense Ministry's application to reclaim land for the proposed base on Okinawa's coast. It would replace the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma base in Ginowan city.
About half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa, and many residents complain about base-related crime, noise and the risk of accidents.
The new base is part of a U.S.-Japan agreement that would also move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, including transferring 5,000 to Guam. The debate over the base in Ginowan dates to 1996, when the United States and Japan signed an agreement to close the base and move its operations elsewhere in Okinawa.