Government Overrides Okinawa’s Objection to U.S. Base Transfer Work in OK

The Japanese government has approved a modified landfill plan for the transfer of a key U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture, despite the local government’s objection. According to a government source, the Defense Ministry will start reinforcing the soft ground at the relocation site for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma as early as Jan 12.

Defense Minister Minoru Kihara called the approval “a milestone” for the total transfer of the Futenma air base as soon as possible. The local governor’s objection had halted the plan, with demands for the base to be moved out of the prefecture, leading to the latest court battle over the project.

The central government aims to relocate the functions of the Futenma airfield from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago. This will involve reclaiming land off Henoko and constructing two V-shaped runways. While landfill work in the southern part of the Henoko coastal area started in 2018 and has been completed, a large part in Oura Bay has been untouched.

Okinawa Gov Denny Tamaki decided to ignore the Fukuoka High Court’s order to approve the modified landfill plan, which paved the way for the central government to take the unprecedented step of doing so by proxy. Tamaki expressed his dissatisfaction, stating that the central government’s action robs the prefectural government of its administrative authority and infringes on autonomy and independence.

This marks the first time that the central government has acted on behalf of a local government after the latter’s failure to fulfill tasks entrusted by the state under the Local Autonomy Act. Critics argue that such intervention is an infringement of local autonomy, even though it is considered a “last resort.”

Tamaki has appealed the high court decision to the Supreme Court, but work at the contested relocation site cannot be halted unless the top court overturns the ruling. Many residents of Okinawa oppose the relocation plan and are calling for the base to be moved out of the prefecture to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. military facilities.

The landfill work, expected to take around 12 years to complete, includes over nine years for the reinforcement of soft zones and other construction work, and around three years for the transfer of the base, with the return of the land used for the Futenma base set to take place in the mid-2030s or later.

To solidify the soft ground, more than 70,000 piles will need to be driven into the seabed at a depth of 70 meters. The relocation plan has been hampered by strong local opposition and political wrangling, despite Japan and the United States reaching an agreement in 1996.

The central government maintains that the relocation plan is the only solution for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, which is close to schools and homes, without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance. Defense Minister Kihara stated that the government will provide thorough explanations to gain local residents’ understanding regarding the project.

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