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Okinawa expecting a long battle with central gov't over base relocation

U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is seen in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Sept. 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Michiko Morisono)

NAHA -- With the central government pushing ahead with relocation work for a U.S. military base within Okinawa Prefecture, the local government is desperate to block the work, demonstrating local residents' resistance to the project.

An angry Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki bitterly criticized the central government's bid, which apparently aims to make the base relocation appear to be a done deal that is now irreversible since land reclamation work has begun.

"I met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya yesterday, and I told them that the illegal landfill work is absolutely unacceptable," the governor told a news conference at the Okinawa Prefectural Government building on Dec. 14. "Nevertheless, the government has pushed ahead with the work. I am furious."

Tamaki, who won the September gubernatorial election by garnering about 80,000 more votes than his rival backed by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has offered to negotiate a settlement with the national government by demonstrating the will of local residents' objection through a planned February 2019 referendum on the base relocation and other measures.

He had adopted this strategy as his predecessor, the late Takeshi Onaga, had an all-out confrontation with the central government, but lost in court battles filed by Tokyo. Onaga had successfully run in the 2014 gubernatorial race on an anti-relocation platform.

However, Tamaki's strategy failed to garner any concessions from the administration. Okinawa Vice Gov. Kiichiro Jahana and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita held four rounds of intensive talks over the issue, but failed to break the deadlock.

The governor's retraction of the prefectural government's earlier permission to do the landfill work has also been suspended by the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism through an administrative procedure.

Political parties in the ruling bloc of the prefectural assembly are saying that Okinawan residents will say "no" to the base relocation in the local referendum. However, it remains to be seen if the referendum can be held in all the 41 municipalities in the prefecture, as the Urasoe and Motobu municipal assemblies have struck down proposed budget appropriations for the referendum.

The prefectural government is poised to adopt a more long-term strategy. "Prime Minister Abe will only be in office for about three more years, but Gov. Tamaki's term is four years," said a senior official. The Okinawa government estimates that reinforcing a weak part of the seabed off Henoko will take five years, making the completion of the entire relocation of the facility a total of 13 years away or more.

Moreover, the prefectural authorities claim that the cost of the reclamation work, which had been initially estimated at some 240 billion yen, will balloon to 2.55 trillion yen. Gov. Tamaki intends to point out that a massive amount of taxpayers' money would be spent on the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko in an attempt to stir nationwide criticism of the project.

"The central government's implementation of national policy measures while disregarding regional areas' opinions is tantamount to destroying local autonomy. I am afraid such a move could have negative impact on not only Okinawa, but other areas as well," Gov. Tamaki told a news conference on Dec. 14.

"I'd like the Japanese public as a whole to clearly remember the way the administration has moved ahead with these policy measures and join hands with us to raise our voices and take action," he said.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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