Japan's Defense Minister Minoru Kihara met with Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki on Saturday to seek his understanding over the transfer of a key U.S. military base within the island prefecture.

The meeting came over a month after the central government started construction work on a part of the new base for relocation, following its unprecedented decision to override the local authority's objection to the project.

Kihara stressed the need to strengthen defense capabilities in the country's southwestern region, where Okinawa is located, although Tamaki responded by saying he hoped the central government would "accept the wishes of the prefecture's residents" and stop the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the coastal Henoko area.

Japan's Defense Minister Minoru Kihara (L) and Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki hold talks at the Okinawa prefectural government office in Naha on Feb. 17, 2024. (Kyodo)

But Kihara said that "considering the deterrence capabilities of the Japan-U.S. alliance and the dangers posed by the Futenma base, relocation is the only solution. We will proceed steadily," pressing ahead with the government's policy to transfer the air station from a crowded residential district in Ginowan to the less populated Henoko.

The defense minister added that strengthening Japan's defense capabilities "will enhance deterrence and lead to the safety of all Japanese citizens, including those of Okinawa Prefecture."

During the meeting, Tamaki also handed a written request to Kihara stating Okinawa's opposition to the deployment within the prefecture of long-range missiles for counterattack use with the ability to strike enemy bases in foreign territories.

The central government began reinforcing soft ground at the site on Jan. 10 in waters on the Oura Bay side of the Henoko area in Nago after approving a modified landfill plan in lieu of the local government in an unprecedented move.

Kihara had inspected the site via helicopter earlier Saturday and later met in the prefectural capital of Naha with mayors of local municipalities living alongside U.S. military bases or Self-Defense Forces facilities.

Kihara met with Tamaki last month in Tokyo in their first meeting since he assumed his post as defense minister in September. During those talks, Kihara expressed his desire to hear the opinions of local residents.

The central government and Okinawa have long been at odds over relocating the Futenma base within the prefecture after the transfer plan was agreed upon between Japan and the United States in 1996. The Japanese government selected Henoko as the new site in 1999.

As part of the construction work, it plans to reclaim land off Henoko and build two runways laid out in a V-shape. Landfill work in the southern part of the Henoko coastal area started in 2018 and has been completed.

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