Tokyo declines Okinawa officials’ request to provide new deadline for closing Futenma
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2019
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Japanese government declined to establish a new deadline for closing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma after being pressed by officials on the southern island prefecture.
The move came during a meeting Wednesday between Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, senior defense officials, Okinawa Deputy Gov. Kiichiro Jahana and Deputy Ginowan Mayor Keigo Wada, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported Thursday.
Okinawan officials sought a new deadline because of safety risks associated with Futenma, which is in an urban area in central Okinawa.
In 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised former Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to shutter Futenma by February 2019 if Nakaima signed off on permits to fill in a portion of Oura Bay along Okinawa’s northern coast for a new runway at the Marine base Camp Schwab in Henoko. The airfield would provide a new home for the Marine squadrons at Futenma.
Nakaima acquiesced, but two subsequent Okinawa prefectural administrations have strived to halt the construction. Those efforts have included a flurry of lawsuits and administrative challenges.
Construction at Schwab began five years ago. It has been postponed several times due to the legal challenges and environmental factors.
A prefectural spokesman confirmed the Asahi report to Stars and Stripes on Friday. The spokesman said Tokyo cited uncertainty surrounding the stability of the seabed, which has been described as “soft,” in its decision to forgo a new deadline.
“During the meeting, the prefectural government and Ginowan City officials demanded a new deadline for returning Futenma as the deadline expired in February,” the prefectural spokesman said. “The central government official replied, ‘It may take a little longer to reinforce soft seabed, but we will do our best to return Futenma,’ without determining the actual new deadline or anything.”
It is customary in Japan for some government officials to speak on condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for the Okinawa Defense Bureau, which represents the Ministry of Defense on the island, declined to comment.
The disagreement came while Japan Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya was on the island this week to tour the Schwab construction site and meet with prefectural and U.S. military officials about the Futenma relocation.
“The central government thinks they had an agreement with the former governor to close down the base within five years to go along with the completion of Henoko construction,” Jahana, the deputy governor, said after the Wednesday meeting, according to The Okinawa Times newspaper. “They need to separate Futenma from Henoko and halt operations [at Futenma].”
Jahana again demanded a new deadline.
Iwaya, the defense minister, said in March that reinforcing the seabed would set the project back three years and eight months. Current estimates of completion on the Schwab construction now stand somewhere around 2025-26 or later, Marine officials have said.
Japan and the United States originally planned to finish the project by 2022 “or later.”
At a press conference at the Okinawa prefectural offices Thursday night, Iwaya said the Okinawa Defense Bureau, after surveying the seabed at Henoko, concluded the area could be reinforced using common construction practices, according to the defense ministry website.
Okinawa’s anti-base Gov. Denny Tamaki has vowed not to approve any changes to the project, including stabilizing the seabed, which could further complicate matters for the Japanese government. When asked about taking the prefecture to court to try and push through the changes, Iwaya demurred Thursday night.
“Everything is still theoretical at this moment so I would like to refrain from commenting,” he said. “[Okinawa Defense Bureau] will try their best to get approval from Gov. Tamaki.”