NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Landfill work to relocate a U.S. military facility in Okinawa resumed Thursday amid protests after the land ministry overruled the prefecture’s attempt to stop the controversial project from going ahead.
The central government is replacing U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is in a crowded residential district in Ginowan, with a partially offshore airstrip in the less-populated Henoko coastal area of Nago.
Wrangling between Tokyo and local authorities over the issue has been intensifying since Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga on Oct. 13 revoked an approval for the Henoko landfill work granted by his predecessor in 2013.
The Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau suspended relocation-related work following the governor’s action, but countered by asking land minister Keiichi Ishii to examine the legitimacy of Onaga’s decision. Ishii announced on Tuesday that the revocation was invalid.
Given the development, Onaga said during a news conference Thursday in Naha that the prefecture will on Monday take the matter to a third-party committee in the internal affairs ministry that handles disputes between central and local governments to screen the legitimacy of the minister’s move.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters Thursday that the government hoped to speed up the relocation work, “remove anxiety of people living near the (Futenma) air base and eliminate the noise pollution and risks” posed by military aircraft flying over residential areas.
The bureau said it had begun setting up a work area near the relocation site and resumed work on an undersea drilling survey for the landfill operation. Some 100 protesters blocked the road to the work site as trucks carrying construction materials arrived, resulting in a scuffle with riot police. “We won’t let the work begin,” shouted protesters, some of whom sat in front of vehicles to block them, while others lay down in the street.
Television footage showed police dragging away protesters, including the elderly, by physically picking up frail activists.
Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine joined protesters near the site shouting their opposition to the relocation, while Onaga pledged to continue fighting the central government’s plan, telling reporters, “Despotic governance (by the central government) is at its height.” However, the government has warned of a possible legal tussle over the issue if Onaga continues fighting the plan.
If Okinawa’s argument is not accepted by the panel, the prefecture plans to take the issue to court.
The prefectural government and many residents in Okinawa are opposed to the Henoko base plan and instead want to reduce the burden on the prefecture from hosting the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.
Japan and the U.S., which struck an accord on the return of the Futenma site to Japan in 1996, say the existing relocation plan is the “only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the air station without undermining the deterrence of the two countries’ alliance in East Asia.