Fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Monday suspended an order by the governor of Okinawa to halt work on the replacement site for the Futenma military base amid the continuing conflict between the central and prefectural governments.
The decision came after the Okinawa Defense Bureau, an arm of the Defense Ministry, filed a complaint seeking to invalidate Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s recent order to halt its work off the Henoko coastal area in Nago.
The area has been chosen as the site for the new base needed to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in a densely populated area in the city of Ginowan, further south in Okinawa.
Hayashi’s decision to nullify the governor’s order angered local residents, prompting about 100 people to stage a protest in front of the U.S. Marines’ Camp Schwab, which is adjacent to the site for the planned base.
The protesters called the move an “outrageous act that ignores the sentiments of prefectural residents” and said they support the governor.
The minister’s decision is consistent with the bureau’s stance that a major delay in the work could affect defense and diplomatic ties between Japan and the United States as the two nations try to push the long-stalled relocation plan forward.
Hayashi notified the local defense bureau and the prefectural government about his decision in writing on Monday morning.
Afterward, Onaga, who was elected on a platform opposing the base relocation plan, told reporters that he would hold a news conference to make his position clear after studying the minister’s decision.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Hayashi’s decision was made on neutral and impartial grounds, and reiterated the administration’s position, which is to proceed with the contentious relocation plan.
“The government will address (the relocation) in a calm manner, continuously taking all possible measures on environment protection in each work, which include an offshore boring survey,” Suga said.
He said the administration places a high priority on relocating the air station as soon as possible.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani welcomed Hayashi’s decision, saying the prefecture’s order to halt construction work could have delayed the relocation “considerably,” and thus would have created a “safety hazard” and “irreparable and serious damage” to residents near Futenma.
“In addition, (the halt) could have posed a serious obstacle to trust in the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Nakatani said.
The dispute between Tokyo and Okinawa began after Onaga ordered the local defense bureau last Monday to stop all work within a week.
At the time, he warned that if the bureau did not follow his order, the prefectural government might revoke the permit it granted to the bureau for rock-breaking work in the Henoko district, a step toward construction of the new base.
The prefecture wants to conduct a survey as it believes reefs outside the designated work area have been damaged by concrete blocks placed by the bureau as weights for floats.
The prefecture has said it can’t conduct the survey if the bureau’s work is not halted, but Hayashi dismissed that argument Monday.
Last Tuesday, the bureau filed a complaint with Hayashi asking him to invalidate Onaga’s order to stop undersea work, which is necessary for land reclamation at the base site.
Three days later, the governor submitted to the ministry a document justifying his order.
Acting on the complaint filed by the bureau, the fisheries minister will hand down a final verdict on Onaga’s order by April 23, after hearing opinions from Okinawa, in line with the law of administrative tribunals.
However, the suspension of Onaga’s order Monday makes it unlikely that the governor will be able to revoke the work permit granted to the defense bureau.
If the minister does not heed the request of the prefectural government, the governor may begin a legal procedure to have the minister’s verdict nullified.
If the permit is revoked, the defense bureau might well bring the case to court, further complicating the base relocation plan.