The standoff over construction of a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma threatens to develop into an all-out legal battle between the Abe administration and Okinawa Prefecture as the national government ignores the local governor’s order to halt seabed drilling off Nago to reclaim land for the planned new U.S. military airfield. The administration should stop and think if such a confrontation — which would further complicate its relations with the prefecture that hosts the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan — would be a wise choice for the nation and its security alliance with the United States.
Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who was elected in November on a promise of halting Futenma’s relocation to the Henoko district off Nago in the northern part of Okinawa Island, ordered the Okinawa Defense Bureau — a part of the Defense Ministry — on March 23 to stop the work that changes the shape of the seabed, including the drilling, within a week on the grounds that concrete blocks sunk by the bureau outside the designated area — where permission had been given for breaking underwater rocks and coral reefs needed for the drilling and reclamation — had damaged coral reefs.
The governor warned that the prefecture would withdraw the permission for breaking underwater rocks — issued by his predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, in August — if the bureau refuses to comply. But the national government continued its work off Henoko and filed a complaint seeking to invalidate the prefecture’s order, calling it “gravely and obviously illegal.”
The Abe administration, apparently confident that it stands on solid legal grounds based on the prefecture’s approval given under Nakaima, seems ready to take the case to court if Onaga in fact cancels the go-ahead given by his predecessor.
The relocation of Futenma — agreed on between Japan and the United States in 1996 — was supposedly meant as a step to alleviate Okinawa’s burden of hosting roughly 75 percent of the bases solely used by the U.S. military in Japan, in the wake of a flare-up in anti-bases sentiments triggered by the rape of a local schoolgirl by three American servicemen the previous year. The promise to return the Futenma site to Japan, however, was given on condition that a replacement facility would be build also on Okinawa.
The Abe administration insists that building the new facility in Nago is the sole solution to removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, which is located in a densely populated area of Ginowan in central Okinawa. Opponents of the plan say building a new U.S. military facility on the island would not reduce the burden on the prefecture.
The administration says it is proceeding with the reclamation work on entirely legitimate legal grounds. But the problem is that the approval for the reclamation work given by Nakaima in 2013 stands on shaky political grounds. His go-ahead for the plan contradicted a campaign promise in his re-election as governor in 2010 that he would seek to have the Futenma base relocated to outside of Okinawa.
The flip-flop, which came right on the heels of Abe’s promise of hefty government spending to promote Okinawa’s economy, angered local voters and cost him the governor’s job in November. Opponents of the relocation to Henoko also won the Nago mayoral race in January last year and swept the Lower House seats in Okinawa’s four constituencies in the December general election.
While the Abe administration has said it seeks Okinawa people’s understanding for the Futenma relocation, it does not seem deterred by the local voters’ will against the plan expressed in the elections. It began the seabed drilling last August — just as the prospect of Nakaima’s defeat in the November election loomed — and officials of the administration kept repeating that the work would proceed irrespective of the election outcome.
The drilling work resumed earlier this month despite the call by Onaga that the work be suspended while the prefecture reviews the legitimacy of the approval given by Nakaima. The administration, meanwhile, continues to give a cold shoulder to the new governor, denying him meetings with Abe or Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga when he visited Tokyo several times since taking office.
The Abe administration may think that the Okinawa governor will eventually back off, and local opposition will ease off, once it surges forward with the Henoko construction. It apparently hopes that proceeding steadfastly with on the Futenma relocation — which has been a thorn in the neck of Japan’s relations with the U.S. for nearly two decades — will contribute to solidifying the bilateral security alliance. There may be no time for the administration to slow down especially as Abe prepares a visit to the U.S. in late April.
But the government should consider whether the chilly relations with Okinawa — much less an all-out confrontation — and forcing the relocation over the opposition from the local administration and voters will in fact contribute to the stability of the security alliance. It should also question whether a plan rejected by so many local people truly serves the interests of Okinawa — which is supposed to be the very purpose of the Futenma relocation.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.