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Tokyo proposes landfill postponement until after Okinawa election to minimize backlash

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responds to reporters' questions after attending Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga's wake in the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha on Aug. 10, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO/NAHA -- Psychological warfare between the central government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government over landfill work for the construction of a new U.S. military base to replace another base within the prefecture has intensified as the death of Gov. Takeshi Onaga has moved up the next gubernatorial election by nearly two months.

On July 27, Gov. Onaga announced that he would be starting procedures to retract approval to conduct landfill work, which had been issued by his predecessor. The work would be necessary to build a new U.S. military base off the coast of Henoko in the northern Okinawa city of Nago to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawa city of Ginowan. However, just 12 days later, on Aug. 8, Onaga passed away from pancreatic cancer.

Yet, the following day, as scheduled, the Okinawa Prefectural Government held a hearing with the Okinawa Defense Bureau of the Ministry of Defense to offer it a chance to rebut the prefectural government's reasons for withdrawing landfill approval, and is in the process of analyzing the contents of the rebuttal.

"We are getting prepared to withdraw approval at any time, but circumstances are changing every day," Deputy Gov. Moritake Tomikawa, who has taken over the duties of governor for the time being, told reporters at the prefectural government office on Aug. 14.

According to sources close to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, following Gov. Onaga's death, the national government contacted the Okinawa government to sound out the possibility of postponing landfill work until after the gubernatorial election if the prefectural government deferred its withdrawal of landfill approval. Ruling party members of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly who were told of the central government's proposal by Okinawa's two deputy governors, Tomikawa and Kiichiro Jahana, on Aug. 13 insisted that the Okinawa Prefectural Government should not take Tokyo's bait. "We should go ahead with the retraction without any reservations," they urged the deputy governors.

In June, the Okinawa Defense Bureau had notified the Okinawa Prefectural Government that it would begin full-fledged land reclamation work in Henoko on Aug. 17. The central government's aim was to carry out the work months before the next gubernatorial election, which had been scheduled for November, but still proceed with the construction work with the hope that any ill will harbored by the Okinawan people from the landfill work will have minimal negative impact on the election.

However, now that the Nov. 18 election has been moved up to Sept. 30, landfill work started this month would lead directly to unfavorable conditions for Atsushi Sakima, the mayor of Ginowan who is being backed by the national government and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a candidate in the gubernatorial election. With the election already shaping up to look like a battle to avenge Onaga's death, landfill work, if started now, could incite rage among the already angry and bereaved people of Okinawa.

Thus Tokyo is no longer fixated on Aug. 17 as the start date for beginning full-fledged land reclamation work, and after attending Gov. Onaga's wake on Aug. 10, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters, "We'd like to wait and see (what moves the Okinawa Prefectural Government makes)."

Meanwhile, if the prefectural government decides to withdraw landfill approval, reclamation work will stop, at least temporarily. But a lawsuit would be filed immediately, in which Okinawa may run the risk of losing the final card in its hand that could be used to stop the construction of the base in Henoko, since the Supreme Court already ruled in 2016 that the Okinawa Prefectural Government's prior nullification of landfill work approval was illegal. A senior Defense Ministry official said with confidence that "there was no way" the national government would lose a lawsuit demanding that the retraction of landfill approval be blocked.

Meanwhile, one member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly said, "The central government may defer reclamation work, but that doesn't make it all right not to go ahead with a retraction of landfill approval. That would break a promise made between Gov. Onaga and the people of Okinawa."

Okinawa Prefecture's top officials are now under pressure to assess the intentions of the central government and honor the wishes of the people of Okinawa in making the difficult decision of when exactly they should retract landfill approval.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau; Tadashi Sano, Kyushu News Department; and Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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