Tokyo: Deadlock over the controversial relocation of a US military base in southern Japan deepened Friday when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met the anti-base governor of Okinawa.
The two men remained as far apart as ever after a 30-minute meeting that analysts said was largely Abe going through the motions of consultation ahead of a key trip to the United States.
Takeshi Onaga told reporters he asked Abe "to tell President (Barack) Obama that the governor of Okinawa and his people are clearly against" plans to build a new facility on the semi-tropical island`s coast in exchange for the shuttering of Futenma airbase.
The issue has queered relations between Tokyo and Okinawa, a once independent kingdom that was annexed by Japan in the 19th century, for nearly two decades, and is an irritant in ties with Washington.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan as part of a defence alliance, a proportion many islanders say is too high.
Futenma, whose busy runway sits in the middle of a densely-populated city, has become emblematic of that ill-will since Washington announced plans to move it in 1996, in what the US hoped would ease tensions with the host community.
Locals have blocked the move, insisting the facility should go off-island instead, and last year elected the vehemently anti-base Onaga, who is determined to block construction of the new base on the coast.
The standoff between Tokyo and Okinawa has hardened over recent weeks, with demonstrations near the construction site, putting pressure on Abe to ease tensions.
At the start of Friday`s meeting, Abe pledged he will "work towards reducing burdens" on Okinawa, but insisted the current plan "is the only solution".
Onaga hit back that three recent popular votes in Okinawa all "showed overwhelming opposition by Okinawans to the construction of a new base."
"Okinawa has never voluntarily offered to host bases," he said, noting that lands were seized during the post-World War II US occupation.
Takehiko Yamamoto, an international politics expert, said Abe is unlikely to compromise on the move, which Washington has repeatedly said is what it wants.
But Abe "needs to do something before visiting the United States, as the issue of US bases in Okinawa is a thorn in the side of the Japan-US alliance".
"I`m concerned that things may get nasty if the government keeps taking the current high-handed approach... prompting anger not only among Okinawans but among some outside the islands," he said.
Tokyo and Washington are working to update the guidelines governing their military alliance at a time of rising disquiet over China`s growing assertiveness.
"The government is in a difficult position of balancing the need to listen to Okinawa`s public opinion and the need to maintain the security alliance with Washington," said Yamamoto.