The national government has launched work to reclaim the sea off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, as part of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan. The move is feared to add fuel to the messy conflict over the issue between the central and prefectural governments.
In the work, a massive amount of stone materials are being used to build seawalls to surround the area that is being reclaimed. The government intends to complete the seawalls by the end of the current fiscal year at the earliest and then pour soil inside the walls. Approximately 160 hectares of the sea will be reclaimed. As the work has got underway, it is difficult to return the environment in the sea to its original state.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference, "The move is a firm step toward the full return of Air Station Futenma (to its land owners), which many people have desired."
However, those who hope that the Futenma base will be closed and its land returned to its owners do not necessarily want the facility to be relocated within the prefecture. It is inappropriate for the government to only place emphasis on one aspect of the relocation work.
Twenty-one years have passed since Tokyo and Washington agreed in April 1996 to close the base and return the land to its owners. The central government has spent more than two decades on efforts to gain understanding for the relocation from Okinawa residents.
Candidates backed by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe beat those supported by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga in mayoral elections in Miyakojima, Urasoe and Uruma in the prefecture in January, February and April, respectively.
Currently, the mayors of nine out of 11 cities in Okinawa Prefecture are supporting the Abe administration. The mayor of Nago, which is required to host the substitute facility for Futenma base, and the mayor of the prefectural capital of Naha are backing Gov. Onaga. The national government apparently thinks that if its candidates win the Nago mayoral and Okinawa gubernatorial races next year, it will mean the government's policy of relocating Futenma base to Nago has won support from local residents.
It is true that elections are important opportunities to gauge public opinion, but the three mayoral elections carried out earlier this year were held in cities that are not directly affected by the base relocation.
Over the past 21 years, various local elections in Okinawa and a referendum in Nago in 1997 have caused a split in local public opinion.
Gov. Onaga has stepped up his criticism of the national government saying, "It's hardly tolerable that the government went ahead with the seawall construction work. It's an outrageous act that ignored the importance of environmental protection."
The Supreme Court has ruled Onaga's revocation of the prefectural government's earlier permission for the reclamation work as illegal but the governor is considering other measures to block the reclamation work, such as filing a lawsuit demanding a court order to ban the central government from continuing the work.
As long as the construction of a substitute facility within Okinawa Prefecture is a precondition for returning Futenma base, the burden of U.S. bases on the prefecture will remain unchanged.
The national government has attempted to gain understanding for the relocation of Futenma base within Okinawa from local residents by reducing the burden of U.S. bases on the prefecture on the whole. However, it will be increasingly difficult for the central government to gain understanding for the project from Okinawa as the government went ahead with the work without settling its conflict with the prefectural government.
Henoko must not become "a sea of conflict."