TOKYO - Japan's Okinawa on Friday approved the long-stalled relocation of a controversial US military base, a breakthrough that could remove a decades-long source of friction between Tokyo and Washington.
More than 17 years after the two allies agreed to move the US Marines' Futenma Air Station from a densely populated urban area, the local government has finally consented to a landfill that will enable new facilities to be built on the coast.
The agreement will burnish the credentials of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the US, possibly taking some of the sting out of American criticism of his provocative visit Thursday to a war shrine seen by China and Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism.
The issue has been deadlocked for years, with huge opposition to the new base site among Okinawans who are fed up playing host to an outsized share of the US military presence in Japan, and who want it moved off the island altogether.
Okinawa's scrappy governor Hirokazu Nakaima, long a thorn in the central government's side, this week met Abe, who pledged a big cash injection into the island's economy every year until 2021.
When he came out of the meeting and declared himself impressed with the package on offer, which includes the shuttering of Futenma within five years, he swung behind the move and gave it his blessing.
The governor announced his decision on Friday afternoon on Okinawa where it was met by an angry popular reaction.
Thousands of protesters surrounded the Okinawa local government office, media reports said, with footage showing demonstrators holding banners reading: "Never bend".
Several hundred had stormed the lobby of the building and were staging a sit-in protest, a government spokeswoman said.
Local bureaucrats signed a document early Friday, which gives the governor's green light to landfill in the Henoko area, near another US base, Camp Schwab.