Work continued on a Marine Corps runway into Oura Bay at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Sept. 15, 2022.

Work continued on a Marine Corps runway into Oura Bay at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Sept. 15, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – A Japanese Cabinet minister this week gave Okinawa’s governor until Wednesday to approve design changes for a coastal airfield planned to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma or face further legal action from Tokyo.

Tetsuo Saito, the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, on Tuesday notified Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki by letter that the prefecture must approve the changes for a Marine Corps runway under construction at Oura Bay in northeastern Okinawa, a spokesman from the prefectural Department of Civil Engineering and Construction said by phone Thursday.

Tamaki can either approve fresh permits, deny them on new grounds or ignore the request, the spokesman said. If the governor denies the permits again, Tokyo will again order approval. If Tamaki continues to resist, Tokyo may file suit, the spokesman said. 

“We are looking at these three options and considering what measures to take,” the spokesman said. “The final decision will be made by Gov. Tamaki.”

Some government officials in Japan may speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.

Tamaki’s refusal to sign off on construction changes in November 2021 kicked off a protracted legal fight that ended Sept. 4 when Japan’s Supreme Court ordered him to approve the permits.

Tamaki argued that the soft seabed in the construction zone posed a hazard and that Tokyo had failed to consider the environmental impact on the critically endangered dugong, a cousin of the manatee protected by Japanese law.

The airfield being built at the Marine base Camp Schwab is meant to replace MCAS Futenma in urban Ginowan. That base, surrounded by city neighborhoods, is considered inherently dangerous by some Japanese officials.

Tamaki’s failure to approve the permitting “significantly harms public interest,” Saito’s letter states, according to the spokesman.

The land ministry hopes Tamaki approves the plan, a spokesman from its Water and Disaster Management Bureau said by phone Thursday. He declined to discuss what steps the government would take if Tamaki failed to approve the permits.

The runway project dates to 1995 when two Marines and a Navy corpsman kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl. During the mass protests that followed, Ginowan residents called for closing MCAS Futenma.

Schwab was chosen in 1997 and a plan unveiled in 2006. Former Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the project in 2013 and reclamation of the site began five years later.

Successive Okinawa governors have mounted legal challenges meant to slow or kill the project, which was only 14% complete as of May. Out of 13 lawsuits filed, the prefecture has lost seven, four have been withdrawn and two are ongoing, one in Naha District Court and the other in Fukuoka High Court.

The project, originally slated for completion by 2014, will now take until at least 2032 and cost the Japanese government $6.9 billion, at last estimates.

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Mari Higa is an Okinawa-based reporter/translator who joined Stars and Stripes in 2021. She previously worked as a research consultant and translator. She studied sociology at the University of Birmingham and Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of Social Sciences.
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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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