The land ministry on Tuesday sidestepped Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s attempt to block the building of a new U.S. military facility in the prefecture, suspending his cancellation of a landfill permit while its validity is examined.
The move potentially allows the Defense Ministry to resume work, at least in the short term, on the replacement for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Land minister Keiichi Ishii said Tuesday he was suspending Onaga’s decision because not doing so would make it “impossible to continue” the relocation — and would present continued “risks” to residents living near Futenma in the city of Ginowan.
“The Japan-U.S. alliance could be adversely affected,” he added.
Futenma is scheduled to be moved to the lightly populated coast at Henoko in the city of Nago, although many Okinawans want it shut down or at least moved out of the prefecture.
Political wrangling between the local and central governments has intensified since Onaga on Oct. 13 revoked the approval granted by his predecessor in 2013 for the central government to carry out landfill.
“It was recognized that there are flaws in the approval,” Onaga said at the time.
In response, the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau suspended work on the relocation, but the following day it asked Ishii to examine the legitimacy of Onaga’s revocation and to suspend the decision.
It may take some time for the minister to complete his examination of the legitimacy of the governor’s revocation, and meanwhile the defense bureau can proceed with relocation work.
The government agreed at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday to urge Onaga to “correct” his action, one that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said “significantly harms” the public interest, including by causing “serious damage” to the nation’s diplomacy and defense.
The Cabinet also agreed that there were “no flaws” in the approval for landfill work granted by then-Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and that Onaga’s move to revoke it was “illegal.”
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the relocation work will resume as soon as a land ministry document on the suspension is delivered to him.
Tuesday’s action by the land ministry angered Okinawa residents opposed to the base’s relocation, with some criticizing the central government for acting “unreasonably” and “insulting Okinawa.”
In a separate move likely to anger the Okinawa governor and Nago mayor, the central government on Monday decided to subsidize local communities that support the Henoko plan, bypassing the municipal government of Nago.
The unusual subsidy plan was presented at a meeting with leaders from three Nago districts — Henoko, Toyohara and Kushi — in the prime minister’s office.
The move came after Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine decided to reject subsidies as he opposes the relocation plan.
“It is natural to give full consideration to the protection of the local living environment, the enhancement of local living standards and the promotion of regional economies,” Suga told a news conference Monday. “We will do as much as possible for the implementation of subsidized projects for the three districts.”
The government is preparing to start direct payments of the subsidies by the end of fiscal 2015, Kazunori Inoue, head of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau, said at the meeting.
The district leaders requested central government aid for projects such as building warehouses for supplies in preparation for natural disasters.
Speaking to reporters in Nago, Inamine blasted the central government’s move as a “maneuver to divide” locals. “Is this what a country governed by laws should do? It’s too unfair,” he said.
Subsidies bypassing municipal or prefectural governments appear to be acceptable under the local autonomy law if the purpose is reasonable, according to a senior official at the internal affairs ministry.
At a news conference Monday, Suga insisted that direct subsidies for districts in Nago are justifiable.
“Support from people in the areas to be affected the most (by the planned base relocation) is very significant,” he said.