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Gov't crosses line with launch of landfill work for Okinawa base relocation

Rocks are lifted into a shallow area off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, following the commencement of shore protection work for the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, on April 25, 2017. (Mainichi)

The government on April 25 started reclaiming land off the Henoko district of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago despite protests from the prefecture, as it prepares to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the area. The move comes 21 years after Tokyo and Washington agreed to return the air station land in the city of Ginowan to Japanese control.

May 15 will mark the 45th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan. The new military facility will be the first major U.S. base for the Japanese government to construct since the 1972 reversion. But forcefully constructing the base will not only damage the natural environment in the landfill area, but could also create a rift of opposition between the central government and Okinawa Prefecture that cannot be closed.

In a news conference at the Okinawa Prefectural Government headquarters, an angered Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga heavily criticized the government's move.

"It's unforgivable that the Okinawa Defense Bureau forcefully went ahead with shore protection work without heeding the prefecture's request to halt construction," he said.

After the Japanese and U.S. governments reached an agreement in 1996 to return the land occupied by U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Japanese control, the base relocation plan took various twists and turns. The second administration formed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012, however, took the line of forcefully relocating the base to the Henoko area, saying that this was the "only solution." In December 2013, then Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima granted permission for landfill work to begin off the Henoko coast. With the launch of construction on April 25, the government has crossed a line that successive administrations of the past had not been able to cross.

Onaga argued that the new base could be used for the next 100 or 200 years, perpetuating Okinawa's excessive burden of hosting U.S. military facilities. Today, 72 years since the end of the Pacific War, Okinawa Prefecture, which accounts for just 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area, hosts 70.6 percent of U.S. military facilities -- a fact that has stirred anger in Okinawa. Protests against the landfill work were held around the Henoko area as well as in the prefectural capital, Naha.

The central government, on the other hand, has prioritized strengthening the Japan.-U.S. alliance to counter North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile development, and the rise of China's military. At the replacement site off Henoko, new facilities that the Futenma base does not have, such as a pier where large vessels can stop and a working area to load ammunition onto aircraft, will also be constructed.

The prefectural government has expressed concern that the natural environment will be severely damaged by the construction of the new base for the U.S. military.

Oura Bay, in which an area of about 160 hectares will be reclaimed for the new base, has abundant coral reefs and seaweed beds, and over 5,800 types of creatures are confirmed to live there. Among them are 262 endangered species including the dugong.

"It is feared that coral reef ecosystems could be driven to extinction, and this is a reckless move that ignores the importance of preserving the environment," Onaga said.

Teruo Hiyane, a professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus, says that with Okinawa's history of hardship, including the Battle of Okinawa and the 27 years after the war in which Okinawa remained under U.S. control, the issue goes deeper.

"Reclaiming land in the sea off Henoko and building a new base is not mere construction. It's burying the will of the people of Okinawa and the history of pain and suffering of Uchinanchu (the people of Okinawa)," he said. "I wonder if the government understands that."

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