Tokyo Report | Politics | East Asia

Okinawa and Japanese Government Locked In Hostile Battle Over US Base Relocation

The prolonged showdown intensified as the contentious landfill construction hit a design plan snag.

Thisanka Siripala
Okinawa and Japanese Government Locked In Hostile Battle Over US Base Relocation

The fence between the U.S. base Camp Schwab and Henoko, Nago in Okinawa is decorated with signs opposing the base relocation.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Vitalie Ciubotaru

Last week marked the one-year anniversary since landfill started at the planned relocation site for the Futenma air base on the coastal area of Henoko bay in Okinawa. The central Japanese government plans to fill 160 hectares of seabed using 20.62 million cubic meters of soil and sand in an area three times the size of Tokyo Disneyland.

Last week Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki — a staunch opponent of the base transfer — denounced the landfill construction as in “disregard of the will of the people, the trampling of democracy, and the destruction of local government autonomy.” On the other hand, Minister of Defense Taro Kono stressed the relocation effort “must move firmly forward,” adding “he would like to politely explain to gain residents’ understanding.”

Tamaki won the Okinawa prefecture gubernatorial election in September last year based on his election promise to halt the “illegal” relocation plan for the U.S. base.

In a nonbinding referendum in February, 70 percent of Okinawa residents rejected the Henoko landfill work but the results have fallen on deaf ears. Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated he would take the referendum seriously, he contradicted himself by saying “We can’t postpone it any longer,” referring to how important the plan to move the Futenma air base is for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

The ruling LDP cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated the government’s stance, saying Henoko was “the only viable solution.” At a press conference last week Suga told reporters “We’ll proceed based on related laws and regulations.”

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In the year since landfill began, less than 1 percent of the surface area has been completed. The landfill completion date and total project costs have not been publicly revealed. The central government initially estimated construction would cost 350 million yen; however the prefectural government estimates the cost to be 2.5 billion yen ($22.8 million dollars), criticizing it as a waste of taxpayer money.

Tokyo admitted earlier this year that original blueprints need to be modified after discovering 40 percent of the total landfill area is made up of a weak seabed described as “soft as mayonnaise,” which puts the infrastructure at risk of sinking if the seabed is not additionally reinforced.

With ongoing disruptions mounting, both parties are far from finding a solution. A recent survey has uncovered unstable seabeds in Oura bay, which are as deep as 30 meters. The thickest level of weak ground stretches a further 60 meters downward, for a total of 90 meters below the surface. This unprecedented depth has never been attempted by current soil improvement technology, which reaches 70 meters at its deepest.

Meanwhile two active fault lines under the landfill sites give more reasons to critics who argue the Henoko bay area is not a suitable place for a military base.

The new plan will need to be submitted for approval from the Okinawa prefectural government, giving them a new opportunity to reject the proposal. The issue is then expected to be brought back to the courts for the third time. The Okinawa prefectural government filed a second lawsuit in July based on the Local Autonomy Law, but hopes were dashed when the claim was rejected in October by the Fukuoka High Court, leaving further legal avenues scant.

The new military base was originally proposed to be built in eight years, but if the new design is taken to court the doomed project could be drawn out for more than a decade. The original decision to move the Futenma base to Oura Bay came all the way back in 1996, but there has been little concrete progress due to steep opposition in Okinawa.

Permanent protests such as daily sit-ins have become a part of everyday life in Henoko, but protester fatigue has crept in, calling into question their effectiveness.

In late November a group of some 30 activists wearing life vests reading “stop construction” protested against a fresh load of soil being brought to Henoko by boat. Activists attempted to block the vessel from leaving the pier using eight canoes and rubber boats. The residents were detained temporarily by the maritime police, allowing the carrier to depart smoothly. Okinawa native and politician Seiken Akamine of the Communist Party of Japan took part in the demonstration, saying they will join forces with opposition parties to drive “the moral collapse of the Abe administration” into resignation.