Seabed tests for new Marine station on Okinawa to resume
November 24, 2004
HENOKO, Okinawa — After a seven-month delay due to protests, the Japanese government is moving forward on tests of the seabed here in preparation for construction of a new Marine air station.
Despite protesters’ attempts to stall the project by blocking construction vehicles bound for the area and surrounding a drilling platform with small boats, the largest of the platforms was in place by the weekend and drilling will begin soon, according to Japanese officials.
In the end, some 30 smaller platforms also will be assembled in the area, said a Naha Bureau of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency spokesman. “We are giving the utmost consideration to the safety of the protesters,” he said. The platforms will be used to drill into the seabed about two miles offshore to test whether it can support the massive airport, to be built on reclaimed land and a reef.
A Japanese Coast Guard spokesman said patrol boats have been dispatched to the area on several occasions to monitor the activity of the protesters. On Monday, the 218th day of the sit-in, about 30 protesters milled around the port site, while others rode in fishing boats and canoes to the main drilling platform.
Yuji Kinjo, 69, one of the sit-in leaders from Henoko, said the group has about 15 canoes and four small boats that depart each day with 30 or so of the protesters. “They go out there at the risk of their lives to stop the project,” he said. “Here, on the land, we are continuing our sit-in. It is our responsibility to hand down our precious sea unpolluted to the next generation.”
The project has placed some residents at odds with their neighbors. Some Henoko fishermen have been hired by the Defense Facilities Administration to take the government surveyors to the site and serve as a buffer between the platform and the protesters.
Haruo Yonekura, 67, a Henoko fisherman for the past 30 years, said he had mixed feelings about the protest. He said he just wished everyone would go away and allow the fishermen to ply their trade in peace.
“As a member of the fishermen’s association, which supports the project, I cannot actively oppose it,” he said. “Yet, when I saw the platform assembled at the site, it upset me.”
Protester Toru Gushiken stood at the water’s edge and gestured to the horizon.
“Can you imagine what this will look like when this mammoth airport is built?” he asked. “It will destroy the nature of Henoko.”
Nearby, tourists, drawn to the site by Japanese media publicity, talked with protesters and examined information concerning endangered wildlife on signboards along a wall. Several signed a petition against the project and donated money.
In 1996, the United States and Japan agreed that Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, located in the heart of the city of Ginowan, would close once an alternate site for Marine air operations was located on Okinawa. The agreement was part of a plan to reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa.
U.S. bases cover about one-fifth of the island. The two countries agreed to close some bases, consolidate others and move Marine air operations to a less-populated area of the island.
After years of delays due to local opposition to the project, the national government and Okinawa agreed to build an airport that would be used jointly by military and civilian aircraft on reclaimed land and a reef about two miles offshore. The airport would be connected to the Marines’ Camp Schwab by a causeway.
Two groups oppose the new facility. Anti-base activists say the new base would cement Okinawa’s U.S. military presence, while environmentalists claim construction would destroy the feeding grounds of the rare dugong, a saltwater manatee.
Henoko residents and mainland Japan activists have been encamped at the port area since mid-April. On Saturday, about 370 people surrounded Nago City Hall to protest Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto’s support of the project. Henoko is part of the city of Nago, separated from the urban center by mountains.
Under the construction plan, 455 acres of land would be reclaimed inside the reef for a 1.5-mile-long runway. It will cost about $2.87 billion and be built over a 10-year period. The Japanese government will pick up the tab for the new facility.
Kishimoto and Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine pushed hard to make the airport a joint-use facility, hoping that a commercial airport in northern Okinawa would stimulate the economy. Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture.
They also won monetary concessions from Tokyo, including an economic stimulus package worth $95 million and making Nago a special financial zone with fewer regulations over some businesses than in the rest of Japan.