NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima granted permission Friday to start offshore fill work for building the base to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, ending his long opposition to allowing a successor facility to be built in the prefecture.
The decision comes after years of political maneuvering and persistent public opposition. It marks a major breakthrough in the stalled effort to close Futenma in the crowded Okinawa city of Ginowan and replace it with a new airstrip next to Camp Schwab on the less-populated Henoko coast in the city of Nago, in line with a 1996 Japan-U.S. accord.
“We decided to approve the application for the fill work, as we judged it contains all possible steps that could be taken at present to protect the environment,” Nakaima said at a news conference in Naha.
“The eagerness exhibited by the Abe administration is way stronger than past governments,” he said, calling the latest package presented by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “well-balanced.”
Since Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party returned to power a year ago, the central government has increasingly called on Okinawa to accept the construction of the Futenma replacement base in Nago under a plan mapped out in 2006.
The central government had been seeking the governor’s approval before next month’s Nago mayoral election, which at present is pitting the city’s anti-base incumbent with a pro-base rival.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday the Nago plan is the best compromise “to maintain deterrence and alleviate Okinawa’s burden.”
Nakaima, who supported the Nago relocation plan in 2006, changed course when he sought a second term as governor in 2010, saying it would be “quicker” to move the Futenma operations out of Okinawa than to build a new facility on the coast of Nago.
Despite Nakaima’s de facto abandonment of his campaign pledge, he stressed that he is still seeking relocation of the base outside the prefecture.
“What’s important here is to move the dangerous air station out of the center of the city of Ginowan as soon as possible,” Nakaima said, stressing the importance of closing Futenma within five years.
Nakaima, defying calls to resign, said even though he has given the go-ahead for the fill work at Nago, there are still hurdles to be cleared as local opposition will persist.
The reactions of the current and future hosts of the Futenma operations to the governor’s decision were in stark contrast. Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima praised the decision as “outstanding,” while Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who plans to run next month for re-election, sent a letter of protest to Nakaima, saying he “would not accept the (fill work), as a representative of the city.”
In the run-up to Friday’s approval, Nakaima tested the government’s seriousness by presenting a list of requests that call for Futenma to stop operating within five years. He also demanded a revision of the Status-of-Forces Agreement governing U.S. military operations.
Abe promised to set up a working group within the Defense Ministry to study the feasibility of the governor’s requests, part of a broader package to reduce the base-hosting burden on Okinawa and provide financial support, worth around ¥300 billion every year, until fiscal 2021.
Tokyo and Washington will also launch talks to forge a new accord on protecting the environment and allow on-site inspections of U.S. military bases.
The Futenma replacement base has been an emotionally charged issue in Okinawa, where anti-base sentiment runs deep amid safety concerns about U.S. military operations. Local residents have also strongly protested the Futenma deployment of MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft, which have a checkered safety record overseas.
The U.S. and Japan agreed in 1996 to build the Nago base to replace Futenma. The accord was updated in 2006 when a so-called road map was set that called for the new airstrip to have two runways in a V configuration that would straddle a small cape at Henoko and extend out over the sea.
The plan further called for the Futenma base to close and its land to be returned to Japan.
Earlier this year, Tokyo and Washington agreed to have the new base operational, and Futenma closed, by fiscal 2022 at the earliest, under a project expected to take some nine years.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera also floated the idea of shortening the construction period to achieve an earlier-than-scheduled return of Futenma.
In 2009, Yukio Hatoyama, the first prime minister under the then-Democratic Party of Japan-led government, raised locals’ hopes by pledging that the base will “at least” be moved out of the prefecture. But he later backed off and decided on a deal with the U.S. that was almost identical to the 2006 bilateral accord.