Okinawa governor vows to continue base-relocation fight despite setbacks
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 16, 2016
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga has released a 13-point plan to block the relocation of Marine Corps air operations on the island despite recent court losses over the issue.
After an MV-22 Osprey crashed into the sea off Nago on Tuesday night, the anti-base governor has ratcheted up resistance to what he sees as a disproportionate U.S. military presence on the southern Japanese prefecture.
The majority of options Onaga identified can only slow the relocation process; however, three involve permits that could soon cross his desk, setting the stage for more showdowns with Tokyo and their allies in Washington.
The U.S. and Japan agreed on the relocation plan in 1996 over aircraft safety concerns at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is in a densely populated urban area in central Okinawa. The plan calls for a new runway at Oura Bay at Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa, which would facilitate Futenma’s closure and shift Marine air assets north.
Onaga has been trying to close Futenma and move Marine air operations off Okinawa, though both Washington and Tokyo have said keeping air operations on the island is the best option.
“I will never allow construction of a new military base at Henoko,” he said recently. “If the central government resumes construction, I will block it by employing every possible means.”
Onaga said he has several cards left to play. The first concerns a permit to break coral in the water where the new runway is being constructed.
The current permit — signed by his predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima — expires in March. Renewal is likely going to be necessary, according to a spokesman for Onaga’s “Henoko New Military Base Construction Countermeasure Team.”
The second is a permit likely needed to collect and transplant coral, and the third is a permit for a revision in the project’s design. One was submitted by the defense minister while Nakaima was in office, but approval was not given before he left the post.
Administration officials also said Onaga could delay the project with surveys for buried cultural property and testing on soil coming in from outside the prefecture for landfill.
“Even if the court judges that the landfill permit was given lawfully, it goes without saying that a strict review is necessary to see if it meets requirements of the law involved, for instance a permit for breaking coral reefs,” Onaga said, according to the spokesman. “Naturally, permission cannot be given when the request for a permit to break coral reefs fails to meet the requirements of law.”
Onaga consistently issues misleading statements about the project. For example, the relocation involves expansion of a base that has existed for decades, not construction of a new one.
The Japanese government pointed to the recent Osprey crash in renewing efforts to push forward with the project.
Two Marines were seriously injured when they ditched their helicopter-plane hybrid in shallow water just off Camp Schwab — in the general area of the new runway — rather than risk flying over Okinawan homes en route back to Futenma.
The aircraft experienced problems after a nighttime refueling at sea with a C-130 severed a heavy hose and damaged the Osprey’s propeller.
Both Marines are expected to recover.
The crash came on the heels of media reports that Onaga had failed in his bid to get a hearing before Japan’s Supreme Court to try to block construction of the airfield off Schwab. A formal announcement is scheduled next week.
Onaga has also caused waves in recent weeks by first saying he would not attend the Dec. 22 ceremony to revert 4,000 of the Northern Training Area’s 7,542 hectares back to Japan. After Tuesday’s crash, he called for the ceremony to be canceled.
“In the wake of the accident, considering how people of Okinawa feel, the ceremony should not be held,” he said.
Vice Gov. Mitsuo Ageda further enflamed the situation this week by publicly accusing Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, of having a “colonialist mentality.” Nicholson apologized to the Okinawan people for the crash during a Wednesday news conference.
Nakagusuku village’s 16-member assembly unanimously adopted a protest resolution Friday, calling for suspension of all U.S. military flight operations, withdrawal of all U.S. military from the island and Nicholson’s resignation, according to an official of the assembly’s administration office.