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Voices of Okinawans still being ignored by central gov't over base relocation

Residents chant, "Stop the base construction!" in front of U.S. military Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of the city of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Oct. 30, 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Ryukyu Shimpo)

NAHA/FUKUOKA -- Despite an overwhelming show of opposition toward the relocation of a U.S. military base inside Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, the central government is pushing ahead with land reclamation work for the move, raising the anger of Okinawan residents.

A month has passed since the people of Okinawa Prefecture expressed a resounding "no" toward the base move with the election of anti-base candidate Denny Tamaki as prefectural governor. On Oct 30, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism put a stop to the Okinawa Prefectural Government's retraction of permission to carry out land reclamation for the relocation.

Based on a 1996 agreement with Washington, Tokyo plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Funtenma, from the middle of the city of Ginowan in the southern part of the prefecture to the coastal Henoko district of the city of Nago in central Okinawa.

As the ministry decision was announced in the capital, some 50 residents repeat anti-base chants in front of a gate of the U.S. military's Camp Schwab in Henoko, where an early resumption to construction of the new base has been halted.

"All that bubbles up is rage," said Ginowan Municipal Assembly member Isao Tobaru, his voice trembling. "Accidents involving U.S. military aircraft are occurring one after the other all over the prefecture, and Okinawa residents know that even if the base is moved to Henoko, there will be no change to this situation," said Tobaru. "Forcing us to select from only two choices of Futenma or Henoko is just wrong."

A bill was just passed in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly on Oct. 26 to hold a prefecture-wide referendum asking residents if they were for or against the base transfer.

The "Henoko Kenmin Tohyo no Kai" (Henoko prefectural referendum association) collected roughly 9,000 valid signatures in order to request the action of the prefectural assembly. The association is calling on the central government to halt any work on the new base until the results of the referendum to be held before the end of April 2019 are announced.

"The central government is just pushing ahead with continuing the construction," said the group's leader Jinjiro Motoyama, 26. Despite the results of the gubernatorial election that was against the base transfer, "The government didn't wait for the results of the referendum or explain why there is only one 'Henoko policy' and gain Okinawans' understanding," said Motoyama. "There must be things that they should be doing instead."

Yoshimi Teruya, 70, a leading conservative supporter of Gov. Tamaki, also accused Tokyo over its confrontational approach toward the base issue. "During the gubernatorial race, the administration-backed candidate promised over and over to move the debate from 'confrontation to dialogue,'" Teruya said. "Now it has become clear that those claims were nothing but posing."

Tamaki's predecessor Takeshi Onaga, who passed away suddenly in August, faced repeated defeats by the central government in the court of law. Still, Teruya believed that Tamaki's September win showed a firm "no base transfer" stance among Okinawa residents. "The people of Okinawa will not give up on winning," he said. "The key to the direction of the battle now is whether the interest of the Japanese public will be piqued further."

Soichiro Kayo, 24, a company employee in the prefectural capital of Naha who supported the government-backed candidate, said he is now interested in what kind of actions Gov. Tamaki takes from here on. "Politics is not just about slogans, it is about getting things done." However, he added, "The central government said that it would 'get closer to the residents of Okinawa,' so I was hoping that it would take a stance allowing a little more dialogue."

--- Central gov't diverting from rule of law: experts

The decision of the land minister against the Okinawa Prefectural Government has also garnered strong criticism from researchers of administrative law.

Four days earlier on Oct. 26, 110 researchers released a statement criticizing the central government's use of the Administrative Complaint Review Act -- a law originally enacted with the goal of protecting the rights and interests of the citizens -- to confront the prefectural government.

One of the researchers, Okinawa University President Hiroshi Nakachi, a specialist in administrative law, expressed his concerns: "Building a military base in waters that private citizens cannot enter is an action that only the central government can carry out." Despite this fact, the professor argues that the central government is acting like it is a citizen. "If the (government's) interpretation that the government and its citizens have the same standing becomes widespread, it is a departure from the goals and ideals of the rule of law."

The government is apparently aiming for a swift restart to the construction of the base in Henoko by bringing in sand and soil onto the site for the reclamation. However, Nakachi said, "The construction will probably move forward, but the central government has failed to convince prefectural citizens. It's just like the building up of magma (before a volcanic eruption)." He warned that the collapse of constitutionalism is beginning in Okinawa.

The land minister explained that the reclamation work must go ahead for the "urgent need to avoid heavy damages." Specifically, he cited financial losses, the danger of accidents and other events affecting residents near Futenma and a worsening of ties with the United States.

But Ryukoku University professor Takio Honda, also of administrative law, was critical of the ministry's reasoning. "It's difficult to assert that financial losses cannot be recovered. The danger of the base is a danger to residents, and has no merit for the central government to claim," said Honda. "The central government is barking up the wrong tree. Is it really all right to let this kind of legal reasoning go unchallenged?"

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Higa and Shunsuke Yamashita, Kyushu News Department, and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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