Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s final decision to revoke his prefecture’s earlier permit for landfill work by the national government to build a new facility in the Henoko area of Nago to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan has been quickly reciprocated by the government’s attempt to get the decision invalidated and annulled. The Abe administration says it will go ahead with the Henoko construction based on the permit granted by Onaga’s predecessor, meaning that the Futenma relocation dispute will now likely become a court battle between the government and the prefecture — an all-out confrontation that should have been averted.
Onaga had little choice but to resort to the much-anticipated action. After all, he was elected governor 11 months ago on a promise of halting the Henoko project amid strong local popular opposition that has also been reflected in other election results in the prefecture. And yet his prospects for winning the legal battle with the national government seem anything but certain.
All the while, the Abe administration has refused to budge from its position that construction of a new facility in Henoko is the only solution to removing the dangers of Futenma, which is located in the middle of a densely populated area of Ginowan, central Okinawa. While repeating that it will seek to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting the bulk of the American military presence in Japan, the administration did not seem to lend an ear to what Onaga was saying about the historical perspective of the issues concerning the U.S. bases, which were built on land seized at gunpoint and bulldozed over following the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. This appears to be the essence of local sentiment on the matter.
While suspending the Henoko work for about a month this summer for “dialogue” with the prefecture, the national government reiterated that the basis of the Futenma relocation issue is the 1996 agreement between Japan and the United States that the land in Ginowan will be returned on condition that a replacement facility is built elsewhere within Okinawa. It seems that the government isn’t making any serious efforts to accommodate Okinawa’s sentiment and prevent the issue from developing into a full-scale confrontation.
On Tuesday, Onaga revoked the permit issued in 2013 by then-Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who gave the go-ahead for the land reclamation work after reversing his own earlier campaign promise to try to move the Futenma replacement facility outside of Okinawa — a turnaround that angered local voters and led to his defeat in last November’s election.
In notifying the Okinawa Defense Bureau of his move to revoke the landfill permit, Onaga cited “flaws” in the procedure in which his predecessor granted the approval. There are no records to show that the prefecture under Nakaima examined the reclamation plan in any concrete and substantial manner, the governor said. The approval was irrational, Onaga said, because there was a jump in logic from acknowledging the necessity of relocating the Futenma airfield to acknowledging the necessity for the reclamation off Henoko.
Onaga went on to state that the national government has failed to provide substantial grounds to back up its claim that a Futenma replacement facility must be built in Henoko because of what it referred to as Okinawa’s “geographical supremacy.” The governor claimed that Nakaima’s approval of the landfill project was irrational in that he did not properly assess the added burden and damage to the prefecture from building a new base on its soil.
The government did not respond to the specifics of such charges and merely says it sees no flaws in Nakaima’s decision. Throughout the dispute, it does not seem to have fully addressed the question why a new base has to be built in Okinawa in order to close another base in the prefecture — which for Okinawans would not result in a net reduction of the burden posed by U.S. bases.
The day after Onaga’s move, the Okinawa Defense Bureau filed a complaint with the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry to get the decision screened and have its power suspended under the Administrative Appeal Act. If the ministry decides to render Okinawa’s revocation ineffective while the matter is being reviewed, the defense bureau would legally be able to proceed with the reclamation work — as the government has vowed to do.
The appeal will most likely be accepted — even though it is debated whether it’s appropriate for the national government to file such action under the law, in light of the law’s purpose of “paving the way for people to promptly file complaints against illegal or unfair acts by the national or local governments” and thereby provide relief for the rights and interests of the people. While the Abe administration says the government is qualified to do so, there are also questions about the validity of a complaint filed by a part of the government being examined by another part of the government instead of by a third-party organ. In the event that Onaga’s decision is rendered ineffective or annulled, the prefecture is expected to consider taking counter legal actions to revoke the annulment and get the Henoko work halted, thereby turning the dispute into a court battle and an exchange of countermeasures between the national government and the prefecture.
The Abe administration should seriously consider how the confrontation with Okinawa — and forging ahead with the Henoko construction despite strong local opposition — will impact the stable operation of the security alliance with the U.S., and try to find a better solution, including an alternative to the Henoko plan.