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Tokyo pushes forward with Futenma relocation work, defying Okinawa officials

An aerial view of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa, Japan.

COURTESY OF WIKICOMMONS

By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2018

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Japanese government has restarted construction on a new U.S. military runway that will one day facilitate the relocation and closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

The move defies Okinawan officials’ repeated attempts to halt work on the project — which will allow landfill work for the runway into Oura Bay off the coast of Camp Schwab at Henoko — that include permit revocations from August.

The Okinawa Defense Bureau, which represents Japan’s Ministry of Defense on the island, began putting back floats Thursday morning that mark a “no-entry” boundary around the Oura Bay site, according to agency spokesman Masashi Katsuren. Landfill work is scheduled to follow.

The move came a day after Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism sided with Tokyo over the project, which had been approved in 2013 by former Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.

The ministry’s lifting of Okinawa’s permit revocation for the work is not permanent, prefectural officials told Stars and Stripes earlier this week, likely setting the stage for yet another court battle over the project.

“We received the official revocation of the prefectural revocation from the Ministry of Land yesterday morning; therefore, we have resumed the construction at the sea this morning,” Katsuren said. “We will put most of our effort on protecting the environment and residents’ safety while resuming the construction.”

Okinawa officials — who held emergency meetings throughout Thursday to determine their response to the restart — could not be reached for comment.

The relocation plan can be traced back to 1995 as furor erupted on the tiny island prefecture over the kidnapping and rape of an Okinawan girl by two Marines and a Navy corpsman. Locals then demanded that Futenma, which sits in a heavily populated urban area in central Okinawa, be closed because it poses a safety risk. The plan to build the runway at the isolated Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa was decided during bilateral negotiations in 2006.

The issue ignited a small but vigorous protest movement — backed by popular support — that has been working to block the project and move Marine air operations totally off the island.

Marine officials have said that the helicopters need to be where the Marines are, and the U.S. and Japan have maintained that Henoko is the “only solution” to the Futenma safety quandary.

Nakaima signed off on a permit to allow the landfill work in 2013, and construction began in August 2014. He was defeated a few months later by Takeshi Onaga, who ran on a platform of stopping the relocation and ejecting the MV-22 Osprey from the island.

Onaga revoked a permit to fill in the sea for the runway, halting work in March 2016. That move was struck down by the Fukuoka High Court the following December. He then filed a district court lawsuit in July 2017 that ended unsuccessfully in March.

Plans were made to restart construction on the runway Aug. 17. Onaga vowed one final permit revocation but died suddenly of pancreatic cancer before he could follow through.

The central government postponed the landfill work in the wake of his death. The permit was ultimately revoked Aug. 30 by Onaga’s vice-governors who took over until elections could be held Sept. 30.

In a move that appeared to be the first administrative step toward a legal showdown, Tokyo appealed to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism on Oct. 17 to take up Okinawa’s permit revocation. The same process was followed in 2015 before the courts ultimately sided with Tokyo.

Even in defeat, Okinawa must still withdraw its revocation before the work can go on unabated, prefectural officials said.

burke.matt@stripes.com

ichihashi.aya@stripes.com

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