On February 24 at 8 p.m., Okinawa’s prefecture-wide referendum on the latest U.S. Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) being constructed in Nago City’s Oura Bay closed. The results saw 72.2 percent opposing the facility, 19.1 percent in favor, and a mere 8.7 percent voting for neither. That was a predictable outcome, with previous polls in 2014 and 2017 signaling a similar split.
This non-binding referendum will run up against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s expected plans to ignore the sentiment of the Okinawan people. On February 25, Abe told reporters that his government would take the referendum results seriously – but immediately undercut that promise by saying construction of the new base, meant as a replacement for the existing MCAS Futenma in Ginowan, could not be delayed.
“We cannot avoid the necessity of moving Futenma, said to be the most dangerous base in the world,” Abe said. “We can’t put this off any longer.”
However, even putting aside the referendum, the waters are decidedly now murkier, with construction concerns over Oura Bay’s unstable sea bottom prompting necessary new construction plans and a rocky way forward.
Since 2014, engineering tests have revealed that the floor of the sea is as “soft as mayonnaise,” with an N-value of 0, unable to stably hold the large military construction without sinking (that would require a minimum N-value of 50). Moreover, underneath the Bay are two active earthquake fault lines, along with a 50-meter depression and a danger of trench earthquakes.
This unstable area is required to be able to build a large portion of the landing airstrips, fueling docks, and support facilities. To accommodate a new reclamation plan, budget estimates for construction have risen tenfold — up from 231 billion yen ($2 billion) to 2.5 trillion yen ($22 billion). This increased budget cost also reportedly includes the lengthened stay of riot police flown over from mainland Japan to quell Okinawan protesters at the site.
Due to this uncertainty, in December 2018 the Japanese Cabinet decided reallocate funds for the seawall on the Oura Bay side to the treasury, with no budget plans for it “until 2020 fiscal year or later” while the new construction plans are in limbo.
However, a new design was uncovered at the end of January. The new plan will need approval from Okinawan Governor Denny Tamaki, elected in September due to his anti-base stance. He is unlikely to concede, which will likely to bring the base relocation issue back to the courts.
“I promise to accept the results of the prefectural referendum and to dedicate my entire self to the prevention of the new base construction at Henoko,” said the governor, speaking at a press conference on February 25. Tamaki also revealed his intentions to meet with Abe on the subject.
The new construction will use a sand compaction method to solidify the seafloor. Builders will drive casing pipes approximately 60 meters into the sea floor, which are to be filled with sand that is slowly released and compacted to form pillars. Over 60,000 pillars are called for in the plans.
With this newer and more intense project, there can no longer be any pretense by the central government about the relocated air station’s adverse impact on Oura Bay’s biodiverse ecosystem. That’s the most contentious reason of prefectural opposition to the construction. The Okinawa Defense Bureau claimed in a controversial environmental assessment seven years prior that the dumping of 21 million metric tons of sand and soil into the sea would not damage sea life and endangered coral reefs.
This conflict with the assessment of marine biologists and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Conservationist are especially concerned after the details released over the different construction methods, which the Defense Bureau has not yet examined.
One of the largest concerns is the possible extinction of the endangered dugong, a marine mammal protected as a national treasure and cultural icon. In August 2018, environmental organizations and the late Okinawan Governor Takeshi Onaga lost a longstanding law suit against the U.S. Department of Defense, arguing it failed to meet requirements under the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). In his ruling, the judge cited the Okinawa Defense Bureau’s past environmental assessment.
“The efforts taken by defendants to comply with Section 402 [of the NHPA], including implementation of mitigating measures, fulfill the requirements of Section 402 and support a finding of no adverse effect,” countered the ruling judge, Edward Chen.
“We will never stop fighting to protect the Okinawa dugong from extinction at the hands of the U.S. military,” said Peter Galvin, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, and one of the co-plaintiffs in the suit. “This base is an environmental atrocity. Wiping out these gentle, culturally important animals would forever stain America’s international reputation.”
The referendum result reflects Okinawa’s continued resentment at their position, with 40 U.S. bases on their islands. Okinawans have been unable to do anything about their position, caught in between the U.S.-Japan military alliance.
This lack of decision-making power and silence from Tokyo on their concerns has been one of the main driving forces behind the creation of group calling for Okinawa’s independence from Japan. The Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewan peoples, ACSILs, is an academic association based in Okinawa that researches the possibility of sovereign and financial independence from Japan. It has caught the ire of the Japanese Security Intelligence Agency.
Okinawa’s natives, also known as Lew Chewan, are considered indigenous peoples by the United Nations. Okinawa was an independent kingdom (then known as Ryukyu) in trade with neighboring states prior to Japanese annexation in 1879. The Lew Chewan annually attend the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, highlighting their sovereignty and distaste toward the stationing of multiple U.S. bases on Okinawan soil.
“This is important since it’s about indigenous people’s right. We have to reconsider about our self-determination,” said Shinako Oyakawa co-founder of ACSILs, in an interview about Okinawan autonomy.
Although the central Japanese government has tried to make the Futenma replacement air station a fait accompli after construction began in December 2018, this very base has been an issue since 1996. Protesters still continue to visit the construction site. With the latest geological and environmental warnings coming out and the referendum starkly revealing Okinawan sentiment, a future U.S. base on the coast of Nago City is not as set in stone as Abe would perhaps prefer it to be.
Temo Dias and Hina Murayama are researchers on East Asian political affairs, environmental issues, and governmental corruption.