Confrontation escalates over U.S. base project in Okinawa

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga announces on Oct. 13 the rescinding of approval for land reclamation work at the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture. (Masaru Komiyaji)

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga announces on Oct. 13 the rescinding of approval for land reclamation work at the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture. (Masaru Komiyaji)

October 13, 2015


As they have done so many times before, protesters gathered in the Henoko district of Nago in Okinawa Prefecture to oppose construction of an offshore U.S. military base.

For years, many of the demonstrators have persevered through broken political promises, about-faces and the Abe administration’s current drive to accelerate the completion of the project.

But Oct. 13 offered a rare opportunity for them to cheer.

Applause rang out at the protest site when Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga rescinded his predecessor’s approval for land reclamation work at the site for the U.S. base.

“I think matters will become more serious from tomorrow, but I will not be defeated,” said Fumiko Shimabukuro, 86, who has joined daily sit-down protests in Nago for 19 years. “We are staking our lives on this protest.”

Onaga’s move puts Tokyo and Naha on course for a full-scale legal battle over the central government’s plan to relocate the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan in the prefecture to the new base off Henoko.

A number of intense negotiations have been held on the issue, but the two sides have refused to budge.

“I will continue to do everything in my power to fulfill my campaign pledge of not allowing construction of a new base at Henoko,” Onaga said at a news conference in announcing his decision to rescind approval for the land reclamation work.

The governor’s decision, based on what he called legal errors in the process for granting the permission, nullifies the legal backing of the work currently under way at the Henoko site.

But the central government is moving quickly to avoid an interruption in the work.

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani indicated on Oct. 13 that he would seek a temporary injunction against Onaga’s order and submit a complaint with the land ministry, which has legal jurisdiction over reclamation projects, based on the Administrative Appeal Law.

“We stand firmly in our position that there was no error in approving the land reclamation work and that the order to rescind it is illegal,” Nakatani said. “We will swiftly move ahead with procedures for submitting a complaint to appeal the illegal rescinding of the approval.”

Nakatani did not say when the complaint would be submitted.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, one of the central government figures directly involved in talks with Onaga, also expressed disappointment at the action taken by the governor.

“There was no legal error in the approval,” Suga said at a news conference in Tokyo. “(Rescinding the approval) ignores the efforts being made to remove the dangers arising from the Futenma base and is therefore very regrettable. There is no change in our thinking of moving ahead with work in connection with the relocation.”

The central government has argued that the relocation plan is based on a Japan-U.S. agreement, and that moving the Futenma functions to Henoko is the only option in terms of national security and providing safety to residents in densely populated Ginowan.

Onaga was elected to his first term as Okinawa governor in November 2014 by clearly opposing the Futenma relocation project to Henoko. He called on the government to shut down the Futenma air station without relocating it, arguing that the southernmost island prefecture already shoulders an unfair burden in hosting U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Onaga defeated incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, who had given his approval for land reclamation work at Henoko.

Okinawa prefectural government officials on Oct. 13 went to the Okinawa Defense Bureau, which is in charge of the land reclamation work, and handed over a document explaining Onaga’s rescinding of Nakaima’s approval.

“Even if the Futenma air base was moved to another prefecture, Okinawa Prefecture would continue to have U.S. military and Self-Defense Force bases, so there would be no decrease to unacceptable levels of the deterrence,” the document said.

It also said, “One reason given for relocating the base within Okinawa was geographical superiority, but no justification for that has ever been presented.”

Okinawa prefectural government officials are also looking into further legal steps that can be taken to counter the central government’s attempts to continue the reclamation work.

A resolution to the confrontation will likely have to await action by the judicial system.

Onaga set up a third-party committee to look into the process behind the approval given by Nakaima for the land reclamation work. The committee submitted a report stating legal errors had been made.

Onaga accepted the central government’s proposal for a one-month period of concentrated discussions on the relocation issue. But when no compromise could be reached, Onaga said on Sept. 14 that he would rescind Nakaima’s approval.

About 200 people gathered in front of the main gate at Camp Schwab, where the Henoko work site is located, from about 6 a.m. on Oct. 13 for a sit-down protest that has been held on a daily basis.

Yumi Aketa, 26, joined the demonstrations about a week ago.

Although Aketa was born in Naha, she had not become involved in the peace movement because having military bases around just seemed natural to her.

That all changed when she went to Tokyo on business in June and participated in protests in front of the Diet against the recently enacted security legislation that will expand SDF activities overseas and allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

“I used to feel war was a thing of the past, but observing the moves around the security legislation made me realize that is not something to be left to others,” Aketa said. “What the government is doing now is wrong.”

(Go Katono and Sei Iwanami contributed to this article.)


About Uy Do

Banking System Analyst, former NTT data Global Marketing Dept Senior Analyst, Banking System Risk Specialist, HR Specialist
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