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Central gov't returns to heavy-handed approach over Henoko base move

TOKYO -- Just five days after Okinawa's new Gov. Denny Tamaki met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and conveyed his opposition to the relocation of a U.S. military base inside the southernmost prefecture, the Abe administration took legal action to resume reclamation work to move the American military facility.

The central government sought the nullification of the Okinawa Prefectural Government's retraction of approval for the landfill project by seeking a review by the Ministry of Infrastructure, Land, Transport and Tourism on Oct. 17.

The latest action is a return to its heavy-handed approach to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan in southern Okinawa, to the Henoko district of the city of Nago in the northern part of the prefecture. Tokyo had temporarily assumed an amicable attitude toward the prefecture in light of Tamaki's overwhelming victory in the Sept. 30 Okinawa gubernatorial election.

"We take the will of the people demonstrated by the results of the (gubernatorial) election seriously, but we must reduce the burden of military bases on Okinawa as much as possible," Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters on Oct. 17, emphasizing that the central government's decision to take legal action was a tough one. "The removal of the dangers of the Futenma (base) and its return is a wish that we share with the people of Okinawa," said Iwaya, seeking the understanding of local residents about the central government's legal move.

The latest round in the decades-long tension between Tokyo and Okinawa began in June when the Okinawa Defense Bureau, the Defense Ministry's local arm, notified the prefectural government of its plans to start dumping gravel and sand into the waters off the coast of Henoko.

In response, Takeshi Onaga, governor at the time, expressed his intention to retract approval for the reclamation work. After he died from pancreatic cancer on Aug. 8, the prefectural government officially carried out his "dying wish" on Aug. 31.

The Abe administration did not immediately take any countermeasures fearing negative impacts on the gubernatorial election. Rather, the plan was to have its favored candidate win the election, paving the way for the central government to do what it wanted.

However, Tamaki, who promised to follow in the late Onaga's anti-base footsteps, cruised to victory with an approximately 80,000-vote margin against the Abe-backed candidate. Under such circumstances, the central government would be accused of ignoring the will of the Okinawan people if it took immediate tough action against the Okinawa Prefectural Government's retraction of land reclamation approval.

Prime Minister Abe, who had refused to meet with Onaga for months after he was voted into the post of governor, met with Tamaki at the prime minister's office on Oct. 12, less than 10 days after Tamaki took office.

During the half-hour meeting, Abe assumed a friendly attitude, telling Tamaki, "The administration will do everything it can for Okinawa's development and the reduction of the burden of military bases shouldered by Okinawa."

Yet the Abe administration reverted to its old ways, despite warnings from some Defense Ministry officials that moves by the central government should take their possible impacts on the Naha mayoral election on Oct. 21 into account.

The administration had determined that waiting for the will of Okinawa residents to change would not yield any results that the central government hoped for in the near future. For one, there was the loss of a candidate backed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the Tomigusuku mayoral election on Oct. 14. Secondly, a survey has shown that the battle for Naha's mayoral seat is looking to be a tough one for the LDP's favored candidate.

The Abe administration has long attempted to present a fait accompli for the base relocation, emphasizing that regional elections and national security are two separate issues. An explanation about the legal action against Okinawa by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at an Oct. 17 press conference implied that the central government was simply undertaking administrative procedures. "It has been reported to me that the Okinawa Defense Bureau has completed necessary deliberations and preparations, such as the close examination of the reason for the withdrawal of the approval (on the reclamation work)."

Among its legal options to counter the prefecture's retraction of permission, the central government chose to seek a request for review by the land ministry under the Administrative Complaint Review Act. Initially, it was considering filing suit for a stay of execution with the courts. On this decision, Defense Minister Iwaya explained, "We want to resolve this problem as quickly as possible, and make progress toward our goal." While a lawsuit would take months, an administrative review is said to take just several weeks.

The central government drew widespread criticism over the Futenma base relocation issue when it filed for an administrative review based on the same law in 2015. Critics argued that conflicts between the central government and a prefectural government should not be judged and resolved by the central government.

And yet, it took the same route again. One individual close to the government explained, "If reclamation work can be resumed soon, then its impact on nationwide local elections next April and the House of Councillors next summer can be minimized."

(Japanese original Noriaki Kinoshita, Political News Department)

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