New Okinawan Gov Takeshi Onaga took office on Wednesday, determined to block the proposed plan to relocate a U.S. military base from Futenma to Henoko.
Last month, Onaga, 64, ousted incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima by 360,820 votes to 261,076.
Nakaima, who had approved Tokyo's plan to relocate the base within Okinawa, cautioned Onaga in his farewell speech on Tuesday. Nakima urged Onaga to move ahead with the plan instead of just saying no, which wouldn't settle anything, he said. He reiterated that the current plan was the only viable solution.
Onaga has promised to veto the landfill work needed for a new base to be built.
Any veto would leave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe having either to overrule locally-elected officials -- risking charges of authoritarianism -- or reverting to the cajoling and persuading of recent years, which would not be popular with Japan's close ally the United States.
Years of deadlock on the planned base relocation have frustrated the Americans and been a thorn in the side of successive Japanese governments.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 U.S. service personnel stationed in Japan, and strategically key to the US-Japan security alliance at a time of simmering tensions in East Asia.
But there is widespread local hostility to the military presence, with complaints over noise, the risk of accidents and a perception that the presence of so many young servicemen is a source of crime.
There have been plans for years to move the Futenma air base from a crowded urban area to a sparsely populated coastal district elsewhere on Okinawa -- some 50 kilometers to the north of the current location.
But opponents like Onaga say Okinawa already hosts a disproportionate share of the U.S. military presence in Japan, and the U.S. base should be moved outside the islands altogether.
After his election, Onaga said: "I'd like to convey the message to the governments of Japan and the United States... that the wishes of the people here are different from the administrative action in December last year," referring to his predecessor's about-face.
Onaga said he would "act with determination" toward retracting approval for the landfill work.© Japan Today/AFP