Construction of the replacement facility in Okinawa for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will take nearly twice as long and cost three times as much as the initial estimates. This makes it certain that shutting down Futenma will now be delayed into the 2030s at the earliest — well over three decades after the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed in 1996 on the return of the base site to Japan on condition that a substitute airfield be built elsewhere in Okinawa.
The government needs to reconsider whether building the replacement facility in the Henoko area of Nago — in defiance of persistent opposition by the prefectural government and Okinawa voters — is indeed the quickest path to removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, located in the middle of the city of Ginowan.
The government confirmed last week that completing the new airfield on a reclaimed site on the Henoko coast will take another 12 years. Underlying this change, the reclamation and construction work is now estimated to take more than nine years, up from the initial estimate of five years, due to additional work to improve the soft ground on the seafloor in the site’s offshore areas — which was found in a boring survey three years ago. The entire cost of the project will balloon from the initial forecast of ¥350 billion to ¥930 billion.
Despite the substantial delay, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga maintains that steady progress in the Henoko construction will lead to the return of the Futenma site as early as possible. But the revised schedule for the Henoko construction still assumes that the Okinawa Prefectural Government will approve of the changes to the construction design incorporating the work on the soft seabed — which Gov. Denny Tamaki, elected last year on a campaign promise of stopping the Henoko project, has indicated he will not endorse. A further spat between the national government and the prefecture, possibly developing into yet another round of legal battles, will further delay completion of the replacement airfield and inflate the cost.
The 1996 Japan-U.S. agreement was aimed at shutting down Futenma to remove its dangers to neighboring residents as part of broader measures to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. military bases. But as long as the government sticks to the Henoko project as the only solution to the Futenma problem, it is going to take at least more than a decade before the purpose of the relocation is achieved. The government needs to hold talks with the United States on ways to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma base even before the Henoko project is completed. It should also review whether the Henoko construction — with the substantial delays, cost overruns and local opposition — is still a viable project.
When Tokyo and Washington agreed on shutting down Futenma, it was assumed the site would be returned to Japan within five to seven years. But the relocation was long stalled as Okinawa voters were sharply divided over the project. In 2013, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed that the return of the Futenma airfield would take place in 2022 or thereafter — on condition the Henoko facility is built to take over its functions. When then-Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima gave the prefecture’s consent to the reclamation work on the Henoko coast in 2013, the national government promised that it would aim for ending military operations at Futenma by February 2019.
Government officials blame the delay in the Henoko construction and shutdown of the Futenma base on Okinawa’s opposition. In the 2014 gubernatorial race, Takeshi Onaga defeated Nakaima with a promise to halt the Henoko project. His decision to reverse his predecessor’s approval of the reclamation work developed into a protracted legal confrontation with the national government, delaying the start of the reclamation work.
However, the opposition by the prefectural government is based on the votes cast by the Okinawa electorate. The current governor, Tamaki, was elected last October — in a race held in the wake of Onaga’s death — pledging to carry on Onaga’s fight against the Henoko project. Subsequent Diet elections in the Okinawa constituency were won by candidates opposing Futenma’s relocation to Henoko, while more than 70 percent of Okinawa voters cast “no” votes on the project in a prefectural referendum in February. The national government needs to think about whether overriding such opposition from the voters of Okinawa — which hosts a large part of the U.S. military bases in this country — to proceed with the Henoko construction project will indeed contribute to stability in the Japan-U.S. security alliance.