NAHA – The government on Friday pushed ahead with full-fledged land reclamation work needed to move a key U.S. air base to Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, despite stiff local resistance and legal wrangling.
The pouring of soil and sand began before noon in Nago’s Henoko district, where the replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is to be built, marking a new and significant phase in the relocation process. The unpopular base is currently in a crowded residential area of Ginowan.
“I cannot help feeling strong resentment toward the work being carried out in defiance of the prefectural residents’ will,” said Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki.
The relocation plan originated from an agreement reached between the Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996, after public anger was fueled by the 1995 gang rape of an Okinawa girl by three U.S. servicemen. But progress has been slow, with many residents hoping the base will be removed from the prefecture altogether.
Many hours before soil was dumped in a 6.3-hectare area on the southern side of the landfill site, protesters gathered in front of the gates of the U.S. Marines’ Camp Schwab, which is adjacent to the site, and held sit-in demonstrations in which they held up placards and called for immediate suspension of the work, facing off with the riot police.
“We have been betrayed by the government all too often. I am sick of it,” said Seiko Kaneku, 69, from the city of Uruma.
The current feud between the central and local governments re-emerged under the tenure of previous Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, with the fight picked up by Tamaki — who was elected in September on an anti-U.S. base platform after his predecessor died of cancer.
But Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters in Tokyo that the central government will advance the construction work so as “to achieve the complete return of the Futenma air base (to Japan) at the earliest possible date.”
There have been legal battles, too, but the central government’s plans to proceed with construction work were given a boost after the Supreme Court ruled against Okinawa’s position in December 2016.
In April 2017, the central government began building seawalls off Henoko’s coastline so it could pour soil and sand inside the designated area.
Under a plan to effectively have Futenma airfield transferred to the site adjacent to the U.S. Marines’ Camp Schwab, the central government is scheduled to fill in some 157 hectares off Henoko and construct an offshore V-shaped runway.
After decades of hosting the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, many people in Okinawa are frustrated with noise, crime and accidents linked to them and do not want any new bases built in the prefecture.
“Why do they force bases on Okinawa? Don’t ignore the people’s will,” said Shoshin Nakama, a 71-year-old farmer from the town of Kin.
Locals and civic groups are also concerned about the potential environmental damage that could be caused by the relocation work. The sea off Henoko has coral reefs and is a habitat for the endangered dugong, which is similar to the manatee.
The central government has maintained that the current relocation plan is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, which is situated close to schools and homes, without undermining the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.
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