Three years have passed since the government started landfill work in the Henoko coastal area of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, for the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is currently located in a congested area of Ginowan, another city in the prefecture.
Landfill has been completed for almost 30% of the planned area, and a mood of despair has started to prevail among people in Okinawa opposed to the relocation project.
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, an opponent of the replacement base construction project in Henoko, is trying his best to lighten the mood as he prepares his bid for a new term in a gubernatorial election slated for autumn next year. Meanwhile, the central government is working to keep him in check in order to reduce the risk of the project being disrupted.
The central government started placing soil into the planned reclamation area, which totals 152 hectares, on Dec. 14, 2018. Of the area, 41 hectares southwest of the cape of Henokozaki has been converted into land. At the end of October, the amount of soil that had been poured in reached about 8% of the total projected amount.
In an attempt to block the reclamation work, Tamaki announced on Nov. 25 a decision to reject the central government's application for design changes in the landfill project made to reinforce soft ground found east of the Henokozaki cape.
"Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said he is good at listening to people, so we want him to sincerely provide an opportunity for dialogue," Tamaki told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday, the third anniversary of the start of the landfill work in Henoko.
Though tagged as Tamaki's "last card," the rejection is effective only in suspending the landfill work on the eastern side.
The government is keeping the work running in the southwestern side with the aim of creating a fait accompli and leave opponents with no choice but to accept the project, a government source said.
In fact, the tide seems to be turning.
Tamaki was elected governor of the prefecture for the first time in 2018. In 2019, more than 70% of Okinawa residents who participated in a nonbinding prefectural referendum voted against relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko.
In 2020, however, the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party in national politics, increased the number of its seats in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly. In this year's election for the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Japan's parliament, a candidate opposing the Futenma relocation was defeated in Okinawa's No. 3 constituency, which encompasses Nago.
"Approval (of the base relocation plan) is the will of the people," said a source related to the LDP, which has been emboldened.
Also, a Nago resident who takes a neutral position on the issue said that "the construction work can no longer be stopped" and that "there is no way we can restore the sea."
It cannot be denied that the so-called All Okinawa camp, an association opposing the relocation from a standpoint free of ideology, is losing some influence.
The central government is leveraging public spending to keep the group at bay. "Our livelihood is at stake," said a business owner, who had left All Okinawa, disappointedly.
In 2022, there will be a series of elections that will affect the fate of the base relocation, starting with a Nago mayoral election in January.
A triennial election for the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of parliament, will be held in the summer and the gubernatorial election in autumn, followed by a mayoral election in Ginowan.
On Dec. 4, Tamaki made an appearance at a rally of anti-base protesters in Henoko for the first time in three years. "We mustn't yield to the high-handed approach," he said.
But there is no sign that the central government and ruling camp will ease up on their efforts to contain the opposition.
On Dec. 7, the Defense Ministry took action to counter the Okinawa governor's rejection of the design changes, filing a complaint with land minister Tetsuo Saito to demand a review of the prefectural government's move.
The central government is also threatening to scale down the state budget for economic revitalization in Okinawa in the budget compilation process for fiscal 2022, which starts next April, in hopes of silencing Tamaki.
The annual budget for promoting Okinawa has exceeded ¥300 billion in the last nine years, but it will "surely fall short of that threshold if the governor refuses to cooperate," a government source said.
At a Lower House Budget Committee meeting Tuesday, Kishida said the relocation to Henoko is "the only solution" to issues associated with the Futenma base, pledging to proceed with the base transfer steadily.
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