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Editorial: Gov't should wait until after gubernatorial race to decide on Henoko landfill

It appears that the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the prefectural city of Nago is developing into another court battle.

On July 27, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga announced that he plans to retract approval for land reclamation work -- a procedure necessary to build a new base to replace Futenma -- off the shore of Henoko.

The central government has been pushing ahead with work to build seawalls around the coastal area where land is set to be reclaimed, and has informed the Okinawa Prefectural Government that work to fill the area with earth will begin as early as Aug. 17.

Gov. Onaga's retraction of permission to begin the reclamation project may temporarily stop the process, but the central government is poised to make moves to counteract the governor's decision. These including submitting a request for a court injunction to keep Onaga from withdrawing the approval -- meaning the retraction will likely only serve as a temporary measure.

Approval for land reclamation was given in 2013 by Onaga's predecessor, then Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima. Onaga, who beat Nakaima in the 2014 gubernatorial race, revoked his predecessor's approval for landfill work in October 2015. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in 2016 that the nullification was illegal.

There does not seem to be much of a chance that Gov. Onaga's withdrawal of approval will be recognized in the courts. Even within the Okinawa Prefectural Government, some officials have been unenthusiastic about fighting a battle they expect will only end in defeat.

But the fact that Onaga nevertheless chose to begin the procedures to withdraw approval for the Henoko land reclamation project is a testament to the difficult position in which anti-base residents and activists have found themselves ahead of the November gubernatorial election.

The central government hopes to go ahead with dumping sand and soil into the ocean along the Henoko shore enclosed by seawalls in order to give those fighting the construction of the military base no choice but to accept the reclamation as a fait accompli, and force supporters of Onaga -- who has promised to stop the construction of this base -- to acknowledge that their resistance is futile.

As Onaga has been troubled by recent health issues, the anti-base gubernatorial candidate for the upcoming election is still left undecided. However, Onaga's resolution to take steps to withdraw the approval, thereby delaying the landfill work, appears to also be a bid to keep his supporters on his side.

Whether or not to resume work on the base before the November gubernatorial race is a difficult decision the central government will have to make. Pressing forward heavy-handedly will undoubtedly draw the ire of Okinawa residents, and may work to the disadvantage of the gubernatorial candidate backed by the coalition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito.

The dangers of the Futenma base are obvious to everyone. Yet, the fact that the relationship between the central government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government has soured to this extent over the relocation of Futenma to Henoko is clearly the fault of the iron-fisted rule of the prefecture by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Not only has the Abe administration failed to face up to the reality that the Okinawan public's will was expressed during the 2014 gubernatorial election, but it has orchestrated a crackdown on those opposing the construction of the Henoko base and caused tension with the prefectural government to escalate.

In the Nago mayoral election that took place this February, the Abe administration used regional revitalization subsidies as bait and fomented divisions among residents in a successful attempt to assist its favored candidate in defeating the incumbent mayor.

Gov. Onaga has criticized such attitudes and actions exhibited by the Abe administration as "insolent." Is it not the role of the government to reduce division and conflict as much as possible? To accomplish this, it would be best for the central government to wait for the results of the upcoming Okinawa gubernatorial race before it decides to begin the next stage of land reclamation work in Henoko.

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