TOKYO — Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who led opposition to U.S. military bases on the southern Japanese island, has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 67.
He underwent surgery for the cancer in April and resumed work in May. Onaga had said he was determined to fulfill his duties and live up to the expectations of Okinawans who supported his fight against a U.S. military base relocation plan and the heavy American troop presence on the small island.
Deputy Gov. Kiichiro Jahana had said earlier Wednesday that Onaga had lost consciousness on Tuesday. The deputy, with his eyes getting a bit teary, said he was temporarily assuming Onaga's duties though he still hoped the governor's recovery.
Hours later, Jahana told reporters Onaga had died. "I'm really, really sorry about the outcome," he said.
Onaga told him Saturday at his hospital room that he still wanted to pursue his effort to stop the relocation, Jahana said.
Local rules require an election within 50 days to choose Onaga's successor.
Onaga was born in 1950 in the prefectural capital, Naha, when Okinawa was still under U.S. occupation after World War II.
He was elected in November 2014 on a pledge to scrap plans to relocate a U.S. Marine Corp. air station to a less densely populated part of the island and close the air station instead. Opponents of the relocation plan say it only shifts the burden and the base should be moved off the island entirely.
Onaga often confronted top officials of the central government, saying Tokyo's approach was high-handed and neglected the will of Okinawans. In 2015, four months after taking office, Onaga criticized Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga for "looking down on" Okinawans, citing Suga's comment that the government planned to steadfastly go ahead with the relocation plan.
About half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are stationed on Okinawa.
Onaga filed a series of lawsuits against the central government, seeking a court injunction to stop landfill at the planned relocation site. He was preparing another legal action when he died.
Onaga has said the Futenma base problem dates to the U.S. confiscation of Okinawan land after Japan's World War II defeat. He said Tokyo's postwar defense stance under the Japan-U.S. security alliance is built on Okinawa's sacrifice.
The dispute over the Futenma relocation reflects centuries-old tensions between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland, which annexed the islands, formerly the independent kingdom of the Ryukus, in 1878. In the final days of World War II, Okinawa became Japan's only home battleground, and the island remained under U.S. rule for 20 years longer than the rest of Japan.