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Okinawa explores Henoko options as solution pushed into future with high court ruling

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga (Mainichi)

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga's decision to revoke his predecessor's approval for the central government to conduct landfill work in the waters off Henoko -- a district in the northern Okinawan city of Nago -- in preparation for the construction of a new U.S. military base there to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in southern Okinawa, was ruled illegal by the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court on Sept. 16.

    While the ruling has boosted the state's confidence that it will be able to resume the base relocation process, Gov. Onaga and his supporters have not shown any indication that they will do anything less than keep fighting.

    "A court decision that merely rubber-stamps the central government's argument and tramples on the Okinawan people's feelings is unacceptable. We're in a very tight spot and the battle we're fighting will be a long one, but I will continue to do my best with the conviction that a new base must not be built in Henoko," Onaga said of the ruling. Onaga made the remarks at a press conference in the early evening of Sept. 16 at the Okinawa Prefectural Government building, indicating that he was dead set on blocking construction regardless of the high court decision.

    Okinawa Prefecture cannot hide its shock over the ruling that Gov. Onaga's revocation is "illegal." What concerns prefectural officials most is how the court ruling will affect public opinion within and without the prefecture. They worry that those in Okinawa who support the governor will lose hope and momentum, or that those outside the prefecture who believe Okinawa should give up after its high court loss will become more vocal.

    Onaga's prefectural office press conference was meant to demonstrate that the fight was far from over. Ruling party members of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly who gathered at the governor's official residence on the eve of the ruling vowed that they would continue to support Onaga no matter what.

    Onaga has said that if the Supreme Court upholds the high court ruling, he will abide by the decision. However, he believes that such a ruling would not bind him from exercising his authority as governor in other ways. Even if the Supreme Court does not overturn the lower court ruling, Onaga is ready to employ various measures to argue the rightfulness of Okinawa's position.

    The first such measure that Onaga will possibly use is re-approval -- or rather, the lack thereof -- on the crushing of rock reef off the coast of Henoko, a process with a March 2017 deadline that must be completed before land reclamation can begin. If the top court hands down a decision before the current fiscal year ends on March 31, 2017, which it is likely to do, and rules in favor of the central government, the government is likely to resume the currently suspended construction preparations. Because of this, the re-approval process could become the first "obstacle" for the central government. The state will also have to transplant coral from the planned landfill site elsewhere, and the Okinawa Prefectural Government is exploring ways to block this process as well.

    The card that likely trumps all others is for Onaga to "withdraw" -- rather than "revoke" -- his predecessor's approval. Both are legally binding in the same way, but whereas a "revocation" is based on errors in the procedures that led to the initial approval, a "withdrawal" is based on changes in circumstances after an approval has been made. The prefectural government believes the Okinawan people's objections to the construction of a base in Henoko, which have been made clear, including in the December 2014 House of Representatives election, constitute "changed circumstances." The prefectural government is consulting experts to determine whether the governor can realistically exercise this option.

    Another effective countermeasure that could be available to Onaga is the gubernatorial approval needed for any changes in the new base's design or the construction method. In the "relocation" of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which entailed landfill work and was carried out between 1996 and 2011, the central government applied to the prefectural government for changes eight times. If Onaga were to refuse permission to changes in the construction plans for Henoko, the process would be halted at each stage.

    Whether Onaga will be able to continue resisting the central government's plans will depend on whether he can keep the people of Okinawa on his side. The 2014 Okinawa gubernatorial race and general election, as well as this year's House of Councillors election, in which candidates opposed to the construction of the Henoko base recorded victory after victory, has kept Onaga afloat and his authority intact. With an eye to the Nago mayoral election in 2018, Onaga is set to appeal to those both within and without Okinawa Prefecture that the Henoko issue does not concern just Okinawa. Rather, he will press the point that Henoko is about local autonomy and the foundations of democracy, which concern the entire nation. Meanwhile, Onaga is considering another trip to the U.S. before the end of the current fiscal year -- his third since he assumed the governor's post.

    "As long as we take the time, the situation will change, even if it's gradual," a senior Okinawa prefectural official said.

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