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Gov't begins seawall construction off Henoko amid Okinawa protests

NAGO, Okinawa -- The Defense Ministry began construction of seawalls off the coastline of this city's Henoko district on April 25 as the initial phase of reclamation work to build a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

As large volumes of stones will be piled up on the seabed to create outer frames of landfill areas, it would be difficult to restore the original natural environment in surrounding waters once the construction work progresses. Once the seawalls are completed, the Defense Ministry is planning to pour earth and sand into the area as early as by the end of March next year, seeking to finish construction of the main facility within the next five years.


The move marks a crucial phase in the controversial plan to relocate the Futenma air base from a densely populated residential area to the Henoko district of Nago amid fierce opposition in Okinawa -- more than two decades after the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on the return of the Futenma airfield to Japan in April 1996.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, a staunch opponent to the base transfer to Henoko, is poised to take every step possible to resist the central government's move. Onaga has suggested retracting his predecessor's approval of reclamation work off Henoko and filing a suit demanding the suspension of the construction work. As the central government is expected to fire back by resorting to execution by proxy in case Onaga retracts the reclamation approval, it remains unclear how much Okinawa will be able to do to stop the construction work.

The Henoko replacement facility will be the first major U.S. military base to be built in Okinawa since the 1972 reversion of the island prefecture to Japan, and the fact that the major step forward toward the facility's construction is being made by the Japanese government itself is expected to draw further backfire from Okinawa. There are pushes among aides to Gov. Onaga for calling a local referendum and bringing forward the gubernatorial election, which is scheduled for fall next year, in order to demonstrate Okinawa residents' opposition to the base transfer.

According to the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau, work to lay stone materials in waters to the north of U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab began at around 9:20 a.m. on April 25. The planned landfill area is set to be partitioned by several seawalls, and earth and sand will be poured into areas where seawall construction has been completed.

Out of the approximately 205-hectare area to host the replacement facility near Camp Schwab, about 160 hectares will be reclaimed, using 20.62 million cubic meters of earth and sand to be brought from both within and outside the prefecture.

Construction begins on a breakwater for a new U.S. Marine Corps runway along the coast of the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 25, 2017. (Mainichi)

In October 2015, Gov. Onaga revoked his predecessor's landfill work approval, but the central government went ahead with construction of the main facility in land areas. The work was eventually suspended in March 2016 following a court-mediated settlement of a lawsuit filed by the central government against the Okinawa Prefectural Government. In a separate lawsuit filed by the central government, a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the state was finalized in December 2016. In accordance with the decision, Gov. Onaga withdrew his cancellation of the landfill approval, allowing the central government to resume construction work later the same month.

The central government has insisted that the base relocation to Henoko is the only solution to removing the danger posed by the Futenma base.

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