Japan started construction work Thursday for a Self-Defense Forces base on an uninhabited island in a southwestern prefecture, the Defense Ministry said, under a plan to relocate military drills using U.S. carrier-borne fighter jets.
In the work expected to last four years on Mage Island in Kagoshima, the ministry will first build runways and ammunition storage facilities, according to an environmental assessment report made public earlier in the day.
The project will pave the way for the relocation of the practice site for U.S. fighter jets from Iwoto Island in the Pacific, about 1,250 kilometers south of Tokyo, following the construction work on the 8 square km island.
The ministry has proposed paying 2.2 billion yen ($17 million) in compensation to local fishermen who will not be able to operate during the four-year construction period and the following assessment year, according to a fishery cooperative source.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Thursday the new base will be "indispensable" for U.S. aircraft carriers to constantly operate in the Asia-Pacific region.
"Given the most severe and complicated security environment of the postwar era, the government will build this facility and begin its operation at an early date," the top government spokesman told a news conference.
The relocation plan stated in the 2011 U.S. military realignment accord between Tokyo and Washington moved forward after Kagoshima Gov. Koichi Shiota gave the nod to the project last November, citing the "increasingly severe security environment" surrounding Japan, apparently referring to China's maritime assertiveness in the East China Sea.
Meanwhile, Shunsuke Yaita, mayor of Nishinoomote that will host the base, has yet to clarify his stance after winning re-election in 2021 with a campaign pledge to oppose the project.
The U.S. military previously carried out takeoff and landing drills at its Atsugi base near Tokyo, but the training site was moved to Iwoto Island temporarily in the early 1990s due largely to noise complaints from local residents.
The fighters were all transferred from Atsugi to another U.S. military base in the western Japan city of Iwakuni by 2018, resulting in longer flights to the training site. Iwoto Island is around 1,400 km southeast of Iwakuni.
After Washington asked Tokyo to prepare a more convenient and permanent location for the drills, Mage Island, located about 400 km south of Iwakuni, became a candidate site under the U.S. military realignment accord between Japan and the United States in 2011.