Japan begins construction work for controversial new U.S. base in Okinawa

Kyodo

The government on Tuesday began building sea walls around a planned replacement facility for the U.S. Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture, taking another step forward with the controversial relocation plan.

Despite persistent local opposition to the relocation of the base from residential Ginowan to the coastal area in Nago, the state is moving ahead with construction —dumping building materials into the sea and planning to launch full-fledged landfill work inside the sea walls in the first half of next year. The prefecture wants the base moved out of Okinawa altogether.

“I’m convinced that the start of the construction marks a steady first step toward realizing the complete return of the Futenma airfield,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said in a statement, referring to a U.S.-Japan agreement on the return of the land occupied by the base to Japan.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga is considering blocking the construction through legal action, including filing a lawsuit. He claims the central government needs to obtain his permission for the work, and the last such permit already expired at the end of March.

He has also threatened to retract approval for the landfill work. While the Supreme Court ruled in December that such an annulment was illegal, Onaga can still move for a revocation on the grounds that the situation has changed since his predecessor granted the approval.

While bagged stones were laid onto the sandy shores of the relocation site in Henoko, about 100 protesters demonstrated before the gates of neighboring the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab, and about 10 protesters in canoes approached the off-limits construction site from the sea.

At the gates of Camp Schwab, protesters held up placards saying, “Stop illegal construction work!” and “Block the new base.”

“They should not make Okinawa shoulder the burden of hosting (U.S.) bases anymore,” said Yumiko Gibo, a 64-year-old nonprofit organization worker from the village of Ogimi. If there were no bases, the 1995 rape of a local girl by American servicemen would not have occurred, she said.

Katsuhiro Yoshida, a senior Okinawa prefectural official in charge of dealing with issues concerning U.S. bases in the prefecture, said the move “ignored the local will” and is “authoritarian,” adding Okinawa people cannot accept it.

Kenji Zamami, 63, who came from Urasoe, said, “I can never accept the government’s tough stance which tries to take away the nature of the sea in Henoko.”

Yoshiko Uema, a 71-year-old from Naha, said, “We must not provide the place for war. We will unite and definitely stop the relocation.”

Akihiro Iida, a 69-year-old man who manages an apartment in the Henoko district, said he will accept the relocation if the central government pays compensation and comes up with revitalization measures.

“We will not see progress in regional revitalization if we ignore the problem that has bothered local people for more than 20 years,” Iida said. “We should aim to create a town that focuses on the generations of our children and grandchildren.”

Japan and the U.S. agreed on the return of the land occupied by the U.S. airfield in 1996 and later on the airfield’s transfer within the prefecture as part of a realignment of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

The state has maintained that the construction of the relocation facility in the Henoko area is “the only solution” to address the problems of the current site, located in a densely populated residential zone, while also maintaining the deterrent capability of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

The construction of the replacement facility began in October 2015.