Tokyo (CNN) -- A Japanese governor has approved a measure to allow for the relocation of a controversial U.S. military base on Okinawa, breaking 17 years of stagnation on the base's transfer plan, the government of Okinawa said Friday.
The Okinawa prefecture's Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima on Friday approved a landfill proposal by the Japanese central government that will permit the construction of new military facilities in a sparsely populated area.
The Pentagon praised the move.
"This decision comes after many years of sustained effort between the United States and Japan, and it is the most significant milestone achieved in these realignment efforts so far," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a written statement, which the Pentagon initially attributed to Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, before correcting it.
"The realignment effort is absolutely critical to the United States' ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and our ability to maintain a geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force posture in the region."
The Futenma air base, which is in a highly populated area, has been unpopular with the island's residents due to crimes committed by U.S. military personnel and allegations against them in the past.
Many residents were incensed by the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl in 1995 by three U.S. military personnel. It sparked some of the worst anti-U.S. military demonstrations seen in Japan in decades.
In 2002, a U.S. staff sergeant in the Air Force was convicted of raping a Japanese woman in a parking lot outside a popular nightclub in Okinawa. Intense media coverage of the case brought pressure on the Japanese government to review its agreement with the United States about handling criminal cases in Japan involving the U.S. military.
And allegations that a Marine raped a 14-year-old girl caused a furor in 2008. The girl later decided not to pursue charges.
In 2012, three U.S. servicemen were arrested in connection with rapes in Okinawa.
About half of all U.S. military personnel in Japan are stationed on the island.
The stagnation of the relocation issue has been a thorn in the side of relations between Tokyo and Washington since 1996 when the two governments agreed on the original plan to move the base.
Nakaima, the governor, also implied that escalating tension with neighboring countries pushed Okinawa to cooperate with the central government.
"Regardless the will of the Okinawa people, the tension is heightening on (the) international front. Okinawa needs to play a certain role for that," he said.
Okinawa administers the Senkaku Isands, a flash point in a territorial dispute between Japan and China. China claims them as territory and calls them the Diaoyu Islands.