Japanese Govt to Accelerate Landfill Work for U.S. Base Relocation in Okinawa

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The coastal site of the Henoko district in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, in this photo taken on Friday by a Yomiuri Shimbun helicopter.

Monday marked two years since the government began landfill work for the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture.

Adopting the preceding administration’s position that the relocation is the “only solution,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet is poised to move ahead by any means with the landfill work to relocate the air station from Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago.

The Okinawa prefectural government has been resisting the relocation work through litigation, but it has lost one suit after another and a growing number of voices are pointing out the limits of such a tactic.

“By steadily moving ahead with the [relocation] work, we’d like to do our utmost to realize the full return of the Futenma Air Station land as soon as possible,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a press conference on Friday.

On the same day, the government began using a large vessel 141 meters in length anchored off the Henoko coast to store earth and sand for the landfill work. With a sand-loading capacity of more than twice that of a regular ship, the vessel will help to carry out the landfill work more efficiently. As the vessel is also characterized by its stability, a senior Defense Ministry official said, “The pace of land reclamation work will rise remarkably, as it will be possible to carry it out without delay even in the rough waters in winter.”

In the reclamation work, which was launched in December 2018 under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a 6-hectare area on the south side of the reclamation site — which is 152 hectares in all — has been turned into land through the addition of earth and sand. An additional area totaling 33 hectares, for which reclamation work has already partially started, is also expected to be completely turned into land by next September.

Yet it remains to be seen what impact the soft seabed in the northern part of the waters will have on the work. It has become necessary to reinforce the seabed in areas that account for about 40% of the entire site, delaying the planned return of the Futenma air station land from sometime in fiscal 2022 or later until sometime in the middle of the 2030s.

The government plans to reinforce the seabed by driving in about 71,000 stakes made with solidified sand over a period of four years and one month. This is a construction method that was also adopted in the construction of Yokohama Port and Kansai Airport. As the stakes are to be driven into the seabed in areas where the water is as deep as 70 meters, the reclamation work is expected to be tough.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who opposes the relocation and is backed by groups that are also against the plan, has not relaxed his stance of all-out resistance to the relocation. At a press conference last Thursday, he unveiled a provisional calculation made by the prefectural government, saying that the reclamation work has been progressing only “at 3.8%,” which he said does not constitute “a point of no return,” and called for work to be suspended.

On Friday, he appealed a ruling by the Naha District Court that rejected a suit by the prefectural government seeking an injunction against the government landfill works.

Tamaki expects to be reelected as governor of Okinawa in 2022 and thus bring about a breakthrough. In the meantime, he does not intend to approve any change in the design of the central government’s plan, which includes reinforcement of the soft seabed in question.

Yet, in the nine lawsuits — two still in dispute — fought between the prefectural and central governments, there have so far been no cases in which the claims made by the prefectural government were accepted in principle. Moreover, the central government intends to institute a lawsuit against the Okinawa government over the design change, as Okinawa will not ultimately approve it, and move ahead with the reclamation work based on the court rulings.

Even if the prefectural government could delay the landfill work, there is a growing impasse within the Okinawa government when it comes to having the central government suspend the relocation work. Concerns have come to be heard, such as an official related to Tamaki saying, “Without coming up with a rallying point other than the anti-Henoko relocation issue, the gubernatorial election will become tougher [for us].”

To break the impasse, Tamaki held talks with Suga in October, shortly after he took office, asking the prime minister to set a new venue for negotiations between the central and Okinawa prefectural governments. But there have so far been no prospects for realizing this.