The Okinawa Defense Bureau last week resumed offshore seabed drilling for a geological survey off the Henoko district in Nago in Okinawa Island — a preparatory step for reclaiming land to build a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma.
The work resumed for the first time since Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga took office after winning the November gubernatorial election by promising to halt construction at Henoko.
Local residents’ opposition to the plan will only increase if the national government pushes ahead with the construction. The government needs to heed the will of Okinawans, as expressed in the recent series of elections.
The bureau, a part of the Defense Ministry, began drilling in August, but suspended work in mid-September due to bad weather, then postponed it further apparently in view of its possible impact on the gubernatorial election in November and the Lower House election in December.
Onaga has requested that the government suspend the drilling until a committee of six experts set up by the prefecture concludes its probe into the legitimacy of his predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima’s December 2013 decision to give the go-ahead on reclamation work. The Abe administration has ignored Onaga’s request.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said: “Our country is governed by the rule of law and our procedures are based on law. The permission for the landfill work has no legal problems at all, so our position to proceed with the work remains unchanged.” But if that is Suga’s logic, he would do well to recall the events leading to Nakaima’s decision. Nakaima had been re-elected as Okinawa governor in 2010 after calling for the Futenma replacement facility to be built outside the prefecture. As head of an association comprising the governor and the heads of local municipalities hosting U.S. military facilities, and whose purpose was to discuss solutions to base-related issues, he called on the national government to move the Futenma functions out of Okinawa. Nakaima’s land reclamation decision in 2013 — made in exchange for the Abe administration’s decision to sharply increase government spending to promote Okinawa’s economy — ran counter to his election promise. If Suga insists on relying on the rule of law, he must ask whether it’s legitimate for the government to use Naikaima’s flip-flop move — which clearly ignores the democratic will of voters — as the basis for its decision.
Meanwhile, the Okinawa prefectural government has learned that a concrete block sunk by the defense bureau damaged coral in an area outside of the zone where Nakaima had permitted construction work on the seabed. Unfortunately, the U.S. military rejected the prefecture’s request for permission to investigate possible damage to coral in an off-limits zone, on the grounds that the probe would interfere with its operations.
The local daily Ryukyu Shimpo also questions whether Suga is justified in referring to the rule of law since the work to crush seabed rocks started before dawn on Jan. 27. The starting time violated agreed conditions stipulating that work must be done between dawn and sunset as well as contravened an internal rule promulgated by the defense bureau that work must start about an hour after dawn.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he will “get close to Okinawan people’s sentiments,” but his administration appears to be doing just the opposite. The administration should at least halt the work off Henoko while the Okinawa committee’s probe continues and hold talks with local officials. And to avoid further complications of the situation, the administration should make a serious effort to come up with an alternative plan.