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Okinawa on another collision course with central gov't over US base relocation

This picture taken from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft shows an area off the coast of the Henoko district in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 19, 2018, where land reclamation work is planned in order to build a new U.S. base. (Mainichi)

NAHA/TOKYO -- Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga has shown the last card in his hand to stop the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of the city of Nago, announcing his intention to retract approval for the new facility's offshore reclamation project issued by his predecessor.

If Gov. Onaga goes ahead with retracting approval for the project, the reclamation work will be suspended and a court battle between Tokyo and the Okinawa Prefectural Government is likely to ensue. Their confrontation will have a major impact on Okinawa gubernatorial election set for Nov. 18.

"The United States and North Korea are continuing their efforts toward denuclearization and easing of tension on the Korean Peninsula," Gov. Onaga told a news conference in the prefectural capital of Naha. "I cannot tolerate the central government's position to push ahead with a plan that was made more than 20 years ago without undergoing a review." His strong words, however, did not mean he had a concrete plan to prevent the relocation.

Onaga won his first term as governor in the November 2014 election, emphasizing his position of "using every means possible to prevent the construction of a new base." He revoked the reclamation approval in October 2015, and filed a lawsuit seeking to block the construction work in July 2017. Still, all of his moves have been blocked in the court of law. The last option remaining is the withdrawal of the reclamation project approval.

Onaga already indicated his intention to make the hardline decision in March 2017, but it took him 16 months to actually make the official announcement on July 27, 2018. The delay was born of negative views toward the move that existed even within the prefectural government serving under him.

Some critics have pointed out that winning the ensuing court case by citing insufficient environmental protection measures among other reasons for withdrawing the reclamation approval would not be an easy battle. Others have suggested that a prefectural referendum on the relocation project is necessary to go ahead with the withdrawal.

However, after the central government notified the Okinawa Prefectural Government in mid-June that the actual reclamation work would begin on Aug. 17 or later, protestors stepped up their calls for withdrawal as soon as possible, staging sit-ins in front of the prefectural office demanding the governor take action.

Following the announcement, an Okinawa Prefectural Assembly member of the ruling bloc warned that the governor "will not last if he does not go ahead with withdrawal," and Onaga was forced into making a decision with the November gubernatorial election looming.

The governor will officially make a decision about the withdrawal of the reclamation approval in mid-August, before the work will begin, after hearing the opinion of the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau. But the central government intends to enact legal countermeasures to the prefectural government's move, including filing a request for an injunction to suspend the governor's withdrawal.

When the governor revoked the approval in October 2015, the Okinawa Defense Bureau filed a suspension request with the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism based on the Administrative Complaint Review Act, and the governor's action was nullified in two weeks. A local judicial source said, "The bar to win a court battle over the withdrawal has been set higher than ever."

A senior official close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sounded positive about the central government's prospects of prevailing, saying that the prefectural government's move is just a "typhoon" that will come and go. Tokyo's tough stance is based on a December 2016 Supreme Court decision that Gov. Onaga's revocation of the reclamation approval was "illegal."

Nevertheless, a Defense Ministry official expressed concern about how long the judicial process will take. "You never know the duration," the official said, expressing concern that the actual reclamation work may not start on time. A source from the national ruling coalition said the timing would be sometime after the gubernatorial election "from a realistic point of view," because beginning work before the polls open would trigger a harsh response from local residents.

Meanwhile, central government officials promoting the reclamation insist that changing the timing of reclamation work because of the election will draw criticism. Tokyo is expected to make a cautious decision on when to resume the reclamation work.

The focal point of the upcoming gubernatorial election is whether incumbent Onaga will run or not. After the news of Onaga officially announcing his intention to withdraw the reclamation work approval, a member of the ruling bloc in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly said, with an apparent relief, "Now one hurdle toward the election has been cleared."

With less than four months to go, Onaga has not made a clear announcement about his candidacy. He underwent an operation for pancreatic cancer in April 2018, and concerns about the 67-year-old's health are persistent. Since the beginning of July, however, he has made a number of remarks suggesting his intention to seek reelection. On July 24, Mayor Mikiko Shiroma of Naha, the prefectural capital of Okinawa, who won her first term in the election four years ago, announced that she would seek a second term. Gov. Onaga made an appearance at the press conference where the announcement was made, and promised to support her bid.

The governor's office requested that prefectural assembly members belonging to the ruling bloc come up with reasons that his candidacy was necessary, seeking a groundwork that would enable him to announce his bid to seek a second term. An assembly member said that the governor would not have supported Shiroma if he was not to also run himself.

An official close to Onaga said, "I guess he intends to make a final decision based on his recovery from his health conditions." No strong replacement for Onaga exists, and local ruling bloc officials are hoping that he will run for re-election. One observation ventures that he will make the decision sometime in mid-August, after he officially withdraws approval for the base land reclamation project.

Meanwhile, Mayor Atsushi Sakima of Ginowan, in the southern part of Okinawa's main island, is scheduled to announce his candidacy on July 30 at the request of the Okinawa chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the ruling party in the central government. The Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the LDP, and Nippon Ishin (the Japan Innovation Party), an opposition force, are expected to support Sakima's candidacy. Another candidate, Shigenobu Asato, a former head of the Junior Chamber International Japan, has indicated his intention to run, but the LDP intends to consolidate candidacy.

For the Abe administration, the Okinawa gubernatorial election is the most important local race to advance the relocation plan for the U.S. base to the Henoko district of Nago. In all of the mayoral elections in Okinawa Prefecture -- Nago in February, Ishigaki in March and the city of Okinawa in April, LDP-affiliated candidates beat contenders close to Onaga. A government official expressed confidence that the LDP would also take the gubernatorial race, saying, "The all-Okinawa backing for the incumbent claimed by the Onaga camp does not exist anymore."

Okinawa will have a series of local elections, such as the Nago Municipal Assembly race on Sept. 9 and the Naha mayoral election on Oct. 21. If Sakima runs, selecting his successor as the mayor of Ginowan will also no doubt become a focal point for local politics.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau, and Shinichi Akiyama and Nozomu Takeuchi, Political News Department)

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