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Okinawa in tight spot as top court sides with gov't in Henoko reclamation case

The Henoko district of the Okinawan city of Nago, where the Japanese government is planning to build a new base to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan, is pictured here in a photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun airplane in June 2016. (Mainichi)

The Supreme Court on Dec. 20 ruled in favor of the central government in its dispute with the Okinawa Prefectural Government over the construction of a new military base in Henoko, in the prefectural city of Nago, to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan.

The case had been fought over Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga's revocation of permission that his predecessor gave to the central government to carry out reclamation work off the coast of Henoko for the new base.

In its ruling, the top court did not address the relationship between the central and local governments, nor the question of whether construction of the base itself was right or wrong. Without holding any hearings of its own, the Supreme Court upheld a high court decision saying that Gov. Onaga's revocation was illegal. In response to the ruling, the central government is set to recommence landfill work this month.

"The court fully accepted the central government's claims," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference after the ruling was handed down. He then emphasized that Japan was a nation governed by the rule of law, effectively pressuring Onaga to accept the ruling. The central government is assuming that Onaga will exercise a range of authority he has as governor to continue his attempts at blocking construction, and is preparing to sue the prefectural government for damages and other claims.

Despite the Dec. 13 crash-landing of a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey tiltrotor aircraft along the coast of Nago, which injured two of the five on board and broke the aircraft apart into pieces, the central government held fast to its policy of resuming construction work in Henoko. According to a senior central government source, the government maintained its stance because in addition to predictions that the prefectural government was likely to lose the case, a ceremony marking the return of approximately half of the U.S. Marines Jungle Warfare Training Center (Northern Training Area) -- spanning the northern Okinawan villages of Kunigami and Higashi -- to landowners is set to be held on Dec. 22. Thus, even if the Okinawan public's anger toward the Osprey crash were to flare up temporarily, the government believed it could win over the public by showing that it was moving to "relieve" the burden of U.S. military bases shouldered by Okinawa Prefecture.

Heavy-handed measures by the central government are being carried out against a backdrop of uncertainty in the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance as President-elect Donald Trump is set to take office next month amid increasing concerns in Japan's national security landscape. To secure the incoming U.S. administration's commitment to the bilateral alliance, the Japanese government is intent on demonstrating that it is upholding its side of the bargain, in the form of building a new base in Henoko to replace Futenma.

Suga indicated that the central government is set to carry out its end of the bilateral agreement, saying, "Relocation (of Futenma) to Henoko is the only option we have."

After the ruling was given, Okinawa Gov. Onaga told a press conference, "I am convinced that the Okinawan people will continue to fight until both the Japanese and U.S. governments abandon plans to build a new base in Henoko," calling for a "rallying of the will of the people" toward stopping base construction.

If the government is to resume construction in Henoko, Onaga is considering exercising his authority as governor not to renew permission given to the central government to crush rock reef, the term of which ends in late March of next year. It remains unclear, however, how effective the exercise of such rights the governor has will be. "I won't deny that we're in a difficult position, since we can no longer argue the righteousness or lack thereof of reclamation work," a senior prefectural official said.

Moreover, sources close to the governor admit that the "All Okinawa" front that had been made possible through the cooperation of Okinawa's reformists and some of the prefecture's conservatives had begun showing early signs of unraveling. Even as protests against the construction of Osprey helipads in exchange for the return of part of the Jungle Warfare Training Center continued, Gov. Onaga on Dec. 8 said that he "welcomed" the central government's plans to have approximately half of the training center returned to landowners this month. Reformist prefectural assembly members and others objected to Onaga's remark, effectively forcing the governor to retract his comment three days later.

With the Osprey aircraft crash-landing, however, the "All Okinawa" front is regaining solidarity. In addition to objections toward the Japanese government for allowing the U.S. military to resume flying Osprey aircraft less than a week after a major accident, Okinawa was slapped with a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the central government. In a press conference Dec. 20, Gov. Onaga said he would attend a major rally protesting the Dec. 13 Osprey accident on Dec. 22, the same day the central government is set to hold a ceremony with the U.S. military in the prefectural city of Nago to commemorate the return of part of the Jungle Warfare Training Center.

"We must close our eyes to small differences in opinion, and resist as a united front. For us to become divided in the face of the central government's intimidation is to play directly into its hands," a reformist prefectural assembly member said, adding that they were planning to support Onaga with an eye to the 2018 Nago mayoral and Okinawa gubernatorial elections.

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