TOKYO — Buoys were being floated off the southernmost island of Okinawa Thursday in one of the first steps in the long-planned but highly contentious relocation of an American military base.
The buoys define the area where preparations for construction will begin on a facility in coastal Henoko that will house the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which will be relocated from a crowded residential area of Okinawa.
Okinawa houses the majority of U.S. troops in Japan. Protests against the bases have been going on for decades. Aircraft noise, crashes and crime are among the frequent complaints.
The Japanese Defense Ministry confirmed the placing of buoys began Thursday but declined to give details, citing security concerns. Public broadcaster NHK showed protesters on boats being blocked by patrol boats, and others holding up signs outside the U.S. base saying "No new base."
Opponents say majority of people are opposed to the construction, which some say would endanger the coral reef, tropical fish and other ocean life.
Land reclamation is needed for an airstrip to be built over the water from Camp Schwab, a U.S. military base. The buoys mark the location where boring of the seabed will take place for a government study to prepare for construction.
Japanese media reports said the drilling could start as early as this weekend. The Defense Ministry declined comment. The U.S. military also had no immediate comment on the activities Thursday.
Many Okinawans want the U.S. off the island entirely, but public opinion is divided with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima backing the plan.
The Marines' relocation to Henoko is part of a broader plan to consolidate and reduce the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Previous efforts to implement the move have stalled. The U.S. and Japan agreed on the plan in 1996.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said the plan is important for the crucial alliance with the U.S. amid territorial disputes with China and the nuclear threat from North Korea.
But Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, where Henoko is located, noted his reelection earlier this year underlines the people's opposition to the plan.
He said assessments on environmental damage were not thorough enough, and accused the government of forcing the issue.
"Pushing forward with this tramples on the human rights of the people, and the rich diverse natural life of this region. This is no longer about democracy," Inamine said in a statement.