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 — A Japanese Cabinet minister took Okinawa prefecture to court Thursday to wrest permitting authority from its governor and kick-start the stalled construction of a coastal airfield to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Tetsuo Saito, Japan’s minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, filed suit in the Naha branch of Fukuoka High Court after Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki on Wednesday missed another deadline to approve permits for the runway in northeastern Okinawa, a ministry spokesman said by phone Thursday.

The unfinished runway is on reclaimed land in Oura Bay at the Marines’ Camp Schwab.

After Japan’s Supreme Court on Sept. 4 struck down Tamaki’s appeal, Saito recommended Tamaki grant the permits by Sept. 27. When Tamaki delayed, Saito demanded the governor comply by Wednesday.

The court had ordered Tamaki to approve design changes and issue the construction permits, the spokesman said.

“It is clear that the governor should take action based on the law,” the ministry spokesman said, echoing a Sept. 28 statement. The governor must approve the permits “immediately,” he said.

The ministry lawsuit asks the high court to strip Tamaki of permitting authority and give it instead to Saito, the spokesman said. No court date has been set, a spokeswoman from Fukuoka High Court said Thursday.

The prefecture is already preparing for oral arguments, which will take place within 15 days, a spokesman for Okinawa’s Department of Civil Engineering and Construction said by phone Thursday.

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

The Japanese government has twice taken an Okinawa governor to court over the runway permits, a spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said by phone Thursday. Land Minister Keiichi Ishii sued former Gov. Takeshi Onaga in 2015 after Onaga revoked the permits. Onaga eventually acquiesced to the high court.

Tamaki resumed the fight as part of his election campaign after Onaga died of pancreatic cancer in August 2018.

His refusal to sign off on construction changes in November 2021 kicked off a protracted legal fight.

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 Camp Schwab is meant to replace MCAS Futenma in urban Ginowan, a site considered inherently dangerous by some Japanese officials.

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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 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.

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