Photo/IllutrationThe U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. It is located in the heart of residential areas with a number of schools. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

NAHA--The central government on Sept. 4 brushed off a request from Okinawa prefectural authorities to set a new deadline for ending operations at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefecture.

In snubbing Naha, Tokyo cited the stalled project to relocate the facility in Ginowan to Nago, also in the prefecture, and Okinawa’s reluctance to work with the central government.

The request was made at a meeting here of a working group tasked with reducing the huge burden Okinawa Prefecture shoulders in hosting 70 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan.

In February 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised during talks with then Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima to end the Futenma airfield's operations “within five years.”

This was in response to Nakaima’s demand for the central government to set a time limit on the use of the Futenma facility in the face of fierce local opposition to relocating the Futenma facility within the prefecture.

In return for Abe’s “within five years” pledge, Nakaima gave his approval for planned reclamation work to begin off the Henoko district of Nago to build a new base to take over the operations at Futenma base.

The deadline for Abe to make good on his promise passed in February.

The latest discussion of the deadline issue came after representatives from the central and prefectural governments decided to raise the topic following a meeting in April.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita and senior Defense Ministry officials represented the central government at the closed-door meeting on Sept. 4. The Okinawan side consisted of Deputy Governor Kiichiro Jahana and Deputy Ginowan Mayor Keigo Wada.

Jahana told reporters after the meeting that the central government said it was difficult to set a new time frame due to “problems,” alluding to the soft seabed off Henoko.

That issue entails major reinforcement work, something that was not anticipated when plans were first drawn up for the project.

The Defense Ministry has warned Okinawa authorities that the reinforcement work will take time to complete.

The central government pledged to return the land on which the Futenma base sits to Okinawa Prefecture on the condition that a new U.S. base will be built off Henoko.

Return of the land was given top priority as the Futenma airfield is situated in the heart of residential areas and poses a danger to residents.

Anti-base sentiment has grown stronger in recent years following a spate of incidents involving helicopters and Ospreys from the Futenma base, including parts dropping from aircraft while in flight.

“Given the series of accidents and incidents, the central government should do its utmost to end operations at the Futenma airfield at the earliest date possible, regardless of progress in the relocation project,” Jahana said.

However, a senior central government official noted that relations between Tokyo and Naha are markedly different from when Nakaima was in office.

“The deadline was set because there was a premise that Abe and Nakaima would work together,” the official said.

Okinawa's current governor, Denny Tamaki, fiercely opposes relocation of the Futenma base within the prefecture.

(This article was written by Kazuyuki Ito, Shinichi Fujiwara and Naoki Matsuyama.)