/

Okinawa mayor invokes red tape, dugong deaths to stop U.S. base

by Sangwon Yoon

Bloomberg

Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine acknowledges his failure so far to prevent the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to ecologically sensitive land in his city.

But he’s not giving up.

Inamine has questioned the effectiveness of the U.S. military force on Okinawa and vowed to use his mayoral authority to block permits for the new base. He has also promised to press his case with the global community and engage environmentalists concerned about the threat the facility would pose to biodiversity in Nago’s Henoko area, including to the endangered dugong, a marine mammal similar to the manatee.

“Why should only Okinawa hold the burden for security of all of Japan, when the presence of U.S. Marines doesn’t play a big role in deterring China?” Inamine, 68, said in an interview earlier this week in Washington. “I, as mayor, have operational control over two ports that are needed for use as construction landfill and I will exercise all powers in the municipality to block access.”

The American military presence on Okinawa remains among the most contentious issues in relations between the U.S. and Japan. Over the years, U.S. officials have apologized for crimes committed by servicemen and faced anger over noise, pollution and accidents tied to the bases.

Outrage over the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen led to an agreement the following year to try to reduce the U.S. footprint by shifting the Futenma air base out of the city to a site to be built partly on reclaimed land in the more rural Henoko region. The plan was re-endorsed a decade later.

Okinawa makes up less than 1 percent of Japan’s land area but hosts about half the 38,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan. It’s regarded as strategically important by the U.S. due to it’s close proximity to Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

Japan has been seeking to strengthen its military ties with the U.S. amid a territorial row with China over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. On April 24, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama “affirmed the resolve on both sides” to make “steady progress” on moving the base in Futenma.

“Okinawa Gov. Nakaima has requested termination of the operation of the Futenma air station in five years or less,” Abe said during the U.S. leader’s visit to Tokyo. “With regard to this and other requests by the governor, I explained this” to Obama “and requested further cooperation from the United States to alleviate the impact on Okinawa.”

Inamine, who was visiting New York and Washington this week, said he wasn’t able to persuade the U.S. officials and members of Congress he met to scrap plans for the facility at Henoko.

As part of his effort to rally opposition to the base, he sat down with representatives from the Marine Mammal Conservancy on Monday. He said he hopes to engage U.S. environmentalists on threats the new base would pose to Henoko’s unspoiled coastline and to creatures such as the dugong.

With Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party holding a strong majority in the Diet, the prime minister can easily alter the law to bypass Inamine if needed. Inamine has said he recognizes the possibility of such legal changes, while adding that such a move would have serious implications for democracy in Japan.

“A majority if not all of the residents don’t want the base in our city and what does it mean for both the U.S. and Japan to ignore citizens’ voices?” he said.

A poll published by regional broadcaster Ryukyu Asahi on Dec. 3 found that three-quarters of the 1,076 respondents wanted the Futenma base, now in the city of Ginowan, moved outside the prefecture or Japan. About 72 percent said the governor shouldn’t approve the land reclamation project for the new base. The survey was carried out between Nov. 28 and Dec. 2 and gave no margin of error.