Vehicles move in and out of the construction zone for a Marine Corps runway being built at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan, on Nov. 16.

Vehicles move in and out of the construction zone for a Marine Corps runway being built at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan, on Nov. 16. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A Japanese Cabinet minister on Thursday approved the design changes holding up construction on a Marine Corps runway at Camp Schwab, three days after the Okinawa governor ignored a court order to approve the changes himself.

Japanese Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Tetsuo Saito gave the Okinawa Defense Bureau the go-ahead to start landfill work on Oura Bay, permission Gov. Denny Tamaki repeatedly refused to give for 3½ years.

The approval letter was handed that morning to the Okinawa Defense Bureau, a spokesman for the ministry’s Water and Disaster Management Bureau told Stars and Stripes by phone Thursday.

A starting date to commence work at the site is not set yet, since “it is necessary to observe the weather,” a spokesman for the Okinawa Defense Bureau said by phone Thursday. The bureau represents the Ministry of Defense in the prefecture.

The bureau posted its comment on its website Thursday.

“We will continue to provide detailed explanations to the local residents and steadily carry out the Henoko relocation work in order to realize the full return of Futenma Air Base as soon as possible, while giving due consideration to the natural environment and the living environment of the residents,” the message stated.

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

The runway being built on reclaimed land in Oura Bay in the rural Henoko area of Okinawa is a planned replacement for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in urban, densely populated Ginowan.

Tamaki on Wednesday appealed the case again to Japan’s Supreme Court, he said in a statement posted that day on the prefecture’s website. The court in September ruled against him on nearly the same question.

In his statement, Tamaki criticized the most recent legal opinion Dec. 20 from Fukuoka High Court that handed Saito authority to approve permits for the construction changes over Tamaki’s head. That ruling, Tamaki said, by allowing new base construction is biased toward the national government’s interests and overlooks the true public interests that are the essence of local autonomy and the Okinawan people’s will.

He wrote that the judiciary, along with the national government, has fallen into a fixed mindset that the construction of a Marine runway in Henoko is the only solution to relocating MCAS Futenma.

“This fixed mindset on the part of the government is precisely what is delaying the immediate elimination of danger of Futenma Air Station,” he wrote.

Tamaki, who opposes the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, in November 2021 denied the pending requests for permits at Schwab but was overruled by Saito, who deemed the governor’s decision “illegal and unreasonable.”

Tamaki began a protracted legal battle, filing and losing three suits to block the permits, culminating in the September loss at the Supreme Court.

The Fukuoka High Court, Naha branch, ordered Tamaki to approve the permits by Monday, a deadline Tamaki ignored.

Appealing to the Supreme Court cannot halt the construction. Japan’s Local Autonomy Act states that the latest decision by the Fukuoka court remains in effect unless the Supreme Court overturns the ruling.

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

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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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