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Editorial: Relocation of US base off Okinawa's Henoko no longer realistic

Plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to reclaimed land off the Henoko district of the city of Nago in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa are now certain to be prolonged by a decade or more.

The Ministry of Defense is poised to announce in the near future that work to reinforce the weak seafloor as part of the reclamation work will take at least 10 years.

Up until now, the government had stated that the relocation would be carried out in fiscal 2022 or later. But even after the landfill work is completed, it will take at least another three years to complete the construction of replacement facilities. This means the relocation of the base from its current location in the city of Ginowan in the prefecture is likely to be pushed back to the 2030s or later.

The Ministry of Defense is considering hammering 77,000 piles into the seafloor to reinforce the soft ground, but has presented no timeline for the estimated construction period. In the future, it will seek approval of the plan from a technical review panel comprising experts in civil engineering and other fields, then apply to the Okinawa Prefectural Government to alter its reclamation plans.

However, the soft ground is 90 meters below the surface at the deepest point, and there have been no past examples of construction on soft ground in such conditions. Doubts remain over whether the construction project, including measures to prevent the ground from sinking after the work is completed, is really possible.

Even if it is technically possible to reclaim the land, the political hurdles remain high. In a prefecture-wide referendum in February this year and in two gubernatorial elections as well as in national elections in recent years, residents of Okinawa Prefecture issued a resounding "no" to the Henoko relocation plans.

It had emerged that the ground at the planned relocation site was soft during a seafloor boring survey carried out between 2014 and 2016, but it was not until this year that the central government officially admitted it. The government's insincere stance of hiding inconvenient information and placing priority on turning the project into a "fait accompli" has deepened the divide between itself and the Okinawa Prefectural Government.

There are no prospects of Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki agreeing to the altered reclamation plans, which could draw the central and prefectural governments into a court battle, delaying work to reinforce the soil. There are in fact no guarantees that relocation to the Henoko area will take place in the 2030s or later.

Twenty-three years have already passed since the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed that land for the Futenma base, located in a crowded residential area of Ginowan, would be returned to the Japanese government "within five to seven years." Adding a decade or more to that period means that the base has effectively been fixed there.

The national government's grounds for forcibly carrying out construction to "materialize the return (of the Futenma base land) as soon as possible" have crumbled. We have no option but to describe the Henoko relocation plan as unrealistic.

It would be a heavy decision for the government to go back and reconsider a project that Tokyo and Washington agreed upon after repeated revisions. But if a serious accident occurs as the government continues to stick to the Henoko relocation plan, then distrust in the Japan-U.S. security alliance could spread throughout Okinawa.

To relieve Okinawa from its burden of hosting U.S. military bases, it is time for the central government to return to the starting point and engage in renewed consultations with the Okinawa Prefectural Government and Washington.

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