TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the governor of the southern island of Okinawa clashed on Friday over the relocation of a contentious U.S. air base, an irritant in U.S.-Japan ties, a week before Abe's high-profile visit to the United States.
Okinawa, host to the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, and Abe's government have been at odds since anti-base conservative Takeshi Onaga was elected governor last November and Okinawa candidates from Abe's ruling party lost in a general election.
Tensions over plans to move the U.S. Marines' Futenma base to land to be reclaimed from waters near the town of Henoko in northern Okinawa rose last month when Onaga ordered a halt to underwater survey work. The prefecture fears the survey is damaging coral reefs.
Onaga insists the base be moved outside Okinawa, where many residents have long resented the fact that the prefecture hosts nearly half the U.S. military forces in Japan.
As the two met, around 100 anti-base protesters gathered outside the prime minister's office.
"Keep your dirty hands off Henoko," one placard read.
Abe, in his first meeting with Onaga since the governor was elected, repeated that Futenma posed a danger to nearby residents and needed to be moved.
"I believe the relocation to Henoko is the only solution," Abe told Onaga. Abe, who had previously declined to meet Onaga, appeared to be trying to show Washington he was doing his best to resolve the festering problem while demonstrating to voters at home that he is not too inflexible to talk to the governor.
Onaga, who has accused Abe of looking down on the prefecture, countered that recent elections showed the people of Okinawa were overwhelmingly opposed to the new base.
"I said that I will never allow a new base in Henoko," Onaga later told reporters, adding he had asked Abe to convey the prefecture's stance to U.S. President Barack Obama at their summit in Washington on April 28.
The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma Marines air base, located in a populous part of the island. But plans for a replacement stalled in the face of opposition from residents, many of whom associate the bases with noise, pollution and crime.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Linda Sieg)