Okinawa retracts approval of landfill work for US base transfer

Relocation plan was opposed by prefectures' former governor as well as residents angry over crimes and accidents involving US military personnel

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2018, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2018, 10:10pm

Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture on Friday retracted its approval of landfill work for the relocation of a key United States military base as instructed by the late Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga, citing illegality in the procedure.

Withdrawal of the 2013 approval given by Onaga’s predecessor affects the US-Japan plan to transfer US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture, rather than elsewhere as demanded by many Okinawa residents angry about crimes and accidents involving US military personnel.

The retraction calls into question the legality of the landfill work. As Tokyo is highly likely to take the matter to court in an attempt to confirm the validity of the prefecture’s earlier approval, the stage is set for another legal battle to start between the central government and Okinawa possibly even ahead of the gubernatorial election on September 30.

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Before his death from pancreatic cancer on August 8, Onaga instructed local officials to take the necessary procedures to retract the approval. The central government had postponed landfill work that was expected to begin on August 17 without providing a detailed explanation for the decision.

“Taking governor Onaga’s passion, we judged properly based on the law,” deputy governor Kiichiro Jahana, who was entrusted by Onaga to retract the approval, told a press conference. “We’ll continue to do our utmost to prevent the construction of a new base.”

He dismissed a claim from the local bureau of the defence ministry that the landfill work is legitimate as groundless because the bureau had failed to make certain corrections at the prefecture’s repeated request, and soft ground had been found underlying the relocation site.

The prefecture also maintains the bureau’s measures to protect the environment have been insufficient, a source close to the matter said.

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Defence minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters that the approval withdrawal was “very regrettable,” adding “our bureau in Okinawa will examine the reasons of the retraction and take necessary legal actions”.

If the central government takes the matter to court and the court rules in its favour, the landfill work could proceed. But the prefectural government may also take some other legal action in an attempt to block the construction.

Onaga had opposed the plan to move the Futenma base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago, both in Okinawa, and demanded the facility be moved outside the prefecture.

In October 2015, Onaga revoked his predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima’s approval of the central government’s request for landfill work in Nago, pointing to legal “defects” in Nakaima’s decision. But the Supreme Court ruled against Onaga’s position in December 2016, leading to the resumption of the construction.

The upcoming gubernatorial race is expected to be a two-way battle between opposition lawmaker Denny Tamaki, reportedly Onaga’s preferred successor, and Atsushi Sakima, a former Ginowan mayor backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.

The Abe administration has been pushing for relocation of the base within the prefecture, but Sakima has not made his position on the matter clear. Tamaki has expressed his opposition to the controversial transfer, saying he will “fulfil the last wish” of Onaga.

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The central government considers the relocation plan, agreed to by Tokyo and Washington, as the “sole solution” to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma base while maintaining the perceived deterrence of the Japan-US alliance.

But many local residents of the southern island prefecture, where the bulk of US military facilities in Japan are located, hope the base will be moved outside Okinawa due to accidents and crimes involving US military personnel.

Japan and the US reached an agreement in 1996 on the return of the land used for the Futenma base. In 1999, the Japanese government decided to relocate the base to the Henoko area.