OSAKA – As the Lower House passed controversial security bills Thursday designed to deepen Japan’s military ties with the United States, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga moved a step closer to halting work on a controversial new U.S. air base after an advisory panel found serious flaws in the approval process.
In a long-expected report, the advisory panel to Onaga, who won election last November by campaigning against a Henoko replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Futenma Air Station, cited concerns about how former Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved a central government landfill permit for the project in December 2013.
The report outlined a lack of environmental protection measures in the Henoko Bay area, and said the prefecture approved the landfill project without a sufficient explanation from the Okinawa Defense Bureau, part of the Defense Ministry.
The committee said it was possible this action violated the Reclamation of Publicly-owned Water Surface Law.
“I’ll treat the report with utmost respect and discuss ways to effectively respond, including withdrawing permission for the landfill,” Onaga told reporters soon after receiving the report.
In Tokyo, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the matter had already been decided by Nakaima, who approved the landfill project application.
“Japan is a country that operates under the rule of law. We are proceeding with landfill construction based on the fact that approval has already been obtained, and with a view toward administrative continuity,” Suga said.
For Onaga, the next likely step is an investigation into how Nakaima approved the application, which would include hearings with relevant Defense Ministry officials. If Onaga were to decide to cancel the permit, it would likely not be until the end of August at the earliest.
Thursday’s developments are likely to further increase concerns in the United States that the Henoko project, originally proposed almost two decades ago, will again be delayed due to Okinawa opposition, despite assurances from Abe to the contrary.
Earlier this week, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed an ordinance that sets restrictions on transporting soil and sand to be used in the reclamation project from outside the prefecture. However, it will not take effect until Nov. 1.
The central government originally applied to Okinawa for a reclamation permit in March 2013.
Nakaima had campaigned in 2010 on a promise to relocate Futenma outside of Okinawa. But in December 2013 he granted approval for the project, saying that in his judgment the government’s plan met environmental standards.
In return, the Abe government pledged to provide at least ¥300 billion annually until April 2022 for a variety of public works in Okinawa, including a new runway at Naha International Airport.
However, Nakaima’s about-face angered many in Okinawa, including those who support the U.S.-Japan alliance but want Futenma relocated outside of the prefecture.
Onaga, who served as Nakaima’s campaign manager in 2010, cobbled together a broad coalition of traditional anti-base activists and political parties, as well as conservatives who nevertheless opposed the Henoko relocation, to win the November 2014 election.
Nakaima lost by about 100,000 votes despite being strongly backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the central headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party.
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