Japan may wait until 2015 to start landfill to move key U.S. base

The government is considering a plan to wait until 2015 or later to start filling in an offshore area in waters off Henoko, Okinawa Prefecture, to build a replacement facility to relocate a key U.S. military facility, government sources said Tuesday.

Tokyo had initially considered starting landfill this fall, but it will likely take until around that time to map out how to proceed with construction based on a seabed survey that began Aug. 18, according to the sources.

The possible postponement will not affect the current schedule to build runways and bank protection at the relocation site in five years, the sources added.

Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the start of landfill in December to relocate the U.S. Marines' Futenma Air Station in a densely populated area in Ginowan to Nago's Henoko district. At the time, he urged the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to end operations at Futenma within five years.

Local opposition remains strong to the relocation plan Tokyo and Washington first agreed on in 1996. The Japanese government has apparently judged that pressing ahead with the landfill could backfire in the run-up to the Nov. 16 Okinawa gubernatorial election in which Nakaima is seeking another term in office.

The Abe administration has been trying to cut Okinawa's share of the burden from hosting the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan, asking the U.S. side to reduce training exercises conducted on Okinawa.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military said it has finished transferring all 15 KC-130 air refueling tankers and military personnel to operate them from the Futenma base to the U.S. Marine Corps' Iwakuni air base in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

It is the first time that U.S. troops have been moved from Okinawa to another area in Japan, and the transfer of the KC-130s is part of the steps to relieve the burden on Okinawa.

"We hope that the transfer will serve the purpose of reducing Okinawa's base-hosting burden," Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda said in a statement. "We urge the Japanese government and the U.S. military to do everything they can to ensure safety."

The Iwakuni base is seen as strategically important due to its proximity to the Korean Peninsula, with a total of 59 carrier-based aircraft planned to be moved there from the U.S. Navy's Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo around 2017.