Construction work continues on a Marine Corps runway at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, June 22, 2023.

Construction work continues on a Marine Corps runway at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, June 22, 2023. (Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The governor of Okinawa prefecture has defied a deadline set by Tokyo to approve design changes for a coastal airfield that will one day replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Gov. Denny Tamaki, who campaigned against the project in 2018, ignored the Wednesday deadline imposed by Tetsuo Saito, Japan’s minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, a spokesman for Okinawa’s Department of Civil Engineering and Construction said by phone Thursday.

Tamaki on Sept. 4 lost his appeal to the country’s Supreme Court, which ordered him to approve changes to the runway under construction at Oura Bay in northeastern Okinawa and issue the construction permits, the spokesman said.

The governor instead wrote Saito to say he had no time to properly review the court’s decision, and meeting the deadline was “difficult,” according to a copy of the letter the prefecture provided Stars and Stripes.

Saito will most likely set another deadline, this time ordering approval, the engineering and construction spokesman has said. If Tamaki continues to resist, Saito can sue for the ability to approve permitting himself.

“It is regrettable,” a spokesman for the ministry’s Water and Disaster Management Bureau said by phone Thursday.

The governor must approve the permits “immediately,” the spokesman said. He declined to say what steps the ministry would take in response.

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 appeared to end with the Supreme Court decision.

The governor 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. Surrounded by city neighborhoods, the base is considered dangerous by some Japanese officials.

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.

author picture
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.
author picture
Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Grafenwoehr, Germany, for Stars and Stripes since 2024. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Okinawa, Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the news organization. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now