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Political calculus over Henoko base intensifies as Okinawa election nears

NAHA/TOKYO -- The Okinawa Prefectural Government on Aug. 31 officially retracted approval for land reclamation work for a new U.S. Marine facility in the local city of Nago.

The move is in line with the wishes of late Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who waged an ardent campaign against the relocation of the U.S. Marines' Air Station Futenma to the coastal region of Henoko in Nago. Land reclamation for the new base's runway had been approved by Onaga's predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima.

"Gov. Onaga paved the way for the retraction," said Deputy Gov. Kiichiro Jahana at a news conference at the prefectural government headquarters to announce the land reclamation green light had been withdrawn. "We have worked on the issue from the standpoint of prefectural administration and came to decide to retract the approval," he added.

Gov. Onaga had announced at the very same venue on July 27 that he would move to retract the landfill approval -- the last resort for thwarting the controversial base relocation. Onaga died of pancreatic cancer less than two weeks later, on Aug. 8. Okinawa's Aug. 31 retraction is certain to impact the Sept. 30 gubernatorial election, in which the pros and cons of the base transfer within the prefecture will be a key point of contention.

At a major rally joined by Okinawa residents on Aug. 11 calling for blocking the relocation, Jahana reassured listeners that the prefectural government would not waver in its plan to retract the landfill approval, saying, "We will make a resolute decision by taking Gov. Onaga's intent seriously."

Yet the retraction decision was a difficult one for prefectural government officials. They are by definition non-political, but the move to revoke the land reclamation approval was based in the late governor's political battle to prevent the Henoko facility from going ahead.

After Onaga's death, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sounded Okinawa out about an "armistice." Tokyo suggested it would postpone the next phase of reclamation work, originally scheduled to begin on Aug. 17, until after the gubernatorial election if the prefectural government was to defer its retraction decision. Some in "All Okinawa," an alliance of liberal and some conservative political forces that supported Onaga, also questioned whether the deputy governor, as interim head of the prefecture, could make such a decision.

The prefectural government pressed ahead anyway, worried that a delay would draw anti-relocation camp criticism that it was ignoring Onaga's will, potentially damaging the gubernatorial election prospects of the candidate seeking to carry on his policies. "We should go ahead with retraction without hesitation," said a ruling bloc member of the prefectural assembly.

At the Aug. 31 press conference, Deputy Gov. Jahana repeatedly underscored that the landfill approval withdrawal was essentially an "administrative decision" after a careful prefectural government review found that the relocation work was "in a state of illegality" -- ruling out any connection between the retraction and the gubernatorial contest. However, it is widely believed within the prefecture that Okinawa timed the land reclamation approval withdrawal to maximize its impact ahead of the official start of campaigning for the Nago and Ginowan municipal assembly elections on Sept. 2, and the Sept. 30 gubernatorial poll.

"(The retraction) would boost the momentum for the All Okinawa alliance. There will be no further spreading of this pessimistic sentiment that blocking the Henoko relocation is no longer possible," said a ruling bloc member of the prefectural assembly.

Former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, 54, who is running for governor backed by the Abe administration, said, "I'd like to take seriously what the head of the (prefectural) administration has decided." He added, "I think Okinawa residents are hoping that the central and prefectural governments will discuss the matter and work toward resolving the Futenma base issue."

Meanwhile, Denny Tamaki, 58, secretary-general of the Liberal Party and a member of the House of Representatives, is set to run on a platform of continuing Onaga's policy line. "I would like to strongly respect and support the prefectural government's decision," he said. "I want to exchange opinions with Mr. Sakima in public debate over the pros and cons of the construction of a new base off the coast of Henoko."

The central government, meanwhile, is planning to take legal countermeasures after carefully analyzing the prefectural government's assertion. As it is expected to take at least several weeks before a legal judgment is made, however, the option to continue the landfill work is no longer viable. Even if a judicial ruling was made before the election, the central government would not resume construction work right away, to prevent it from becoming a political flashpoint right before voting day.

Even if the case goes to court once again, Tokyo is confident of victory, and it won't take long before construction work is resumed, according to a senior Defense Ministry official.

Onaga also yanked the landfill approval in October 2015, but the Supreme Court ruled this illegal in December 2016. This time around, the prefectural government retracted the reclamation approval on the grounds of "insufficient measures to protect the environment" that emerged after the 2015 revocation, but the central government views both moves as inherently of the same nature.

As it is likely the anti-relocation camp would gain momentum from any resumption of construction ahead of the gubernatorial race -- the results of which will affect the central government -- many Abe administration figures voiced reservations about pressing ahead.

However, now that Okinawa has retracted the landfill permission, the central government has been spared that delicate decision.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau, Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu News Department, Shinichi Akiyama and Kazumasa Kawabe, Political News Department)

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