The government said Monday that it plans to begin full-fledged land reclamation work on Dec. 14 for the construction of a controversial replacement facility for a U.S. air base in the Henoko coastal area of Okinawa Prefecture.
The government began loading soil and sand onto vessels in the morning in Okinawa in preparation for relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area in the city of Ginowan to the Henoko coastal district of Nago under a Japan-U.S. agreement.
“Relocating the base to Henoko is the only way to lighten Okinawa’s (base-hosting) burdens and realize the return of (land occupied by) Futenma,” Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters the same day. He also answered in the affirmative when asked if the ministry will carry out the reclamation work, adding that it would do so “with unwavering resolve.”
Many people in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, want the Futenma base moved outside the prefecture. They are also concerned the landfill work will have a huge impact on the areas’s marine environment, which is home to coral reefs and the endangered dugong.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the central government had notified Okinawa Prefecture of the reclamation work schedule after it “completed preparations.”
“We will proceed with the construction work while ensuring safety,” he told a news conference.
The Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau used a pier run by a local cement-maker for loading operations after its initial plan to use a public port was blocked over safety issues raised by the town of Motobu, which manages it. The town said the port cannot accommodate new vessels because it was partially damaged in a recent typhoon.
Okinawa and the central government held several rounds of intensive talks in November over the Futenma transfer, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Gov. Denny Tamaki ultimately failed to find common ground last Wednesday.
“Following the result of the dialogue, we came to the conclusion that we will proceed with the construction work as planned,” said Iwaya. “I believe we followed procedure in an appropriate manner.”
The Okinawa Prefectural Government has announced it will hold a referendum Feb. 24 on the base relocation issue, following the October approval of an ordinance by the prefectural assembly.
Some 50 protesters with signs calling for a halt to construction work gathered near the Ryukyu Cement Co. pier in Nago, where the vessels were loaded with sand and soil.
Police used force to remove those taking part in sit-in protests after they did not respond to directions from the company.
“I absolutely can’t tolerate the government’s stance of forcing the landfill work (forward) using a private pier,” said protester Hiromasa Iha, 66.
The vessels left the pier around noon Monday and are expected to remain offshore for some time.
In an attempt to thwart the progress of the relocation work, the Okinawa government in August withdrew its earlier approval for landfill work.
But land minister Keiichi Ishii issued an injunction in late October overriding the retraction on the grounds it was unreasonable and would undermine relations of trust with the United States, Japan’s top security ally.
Japan and the U.S. reached an agreement in 1996 on the return of the land used for the Futenma base, and in 1999, the Japanese government decided to relocate it to the Henoko area.