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Landfill work for the construction of a Marine Corps runway at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, is seen in January 2020.
Landfill work for the construction of a Marine Corps runway at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, is seen in January 2020. (Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Japanese government last week turned aside another move by Okinawa’s prefectural governor to halt work on an airfield fixed as the new home of Marine Corps aviation on the island.

Genjiro Kaneko, Japan’s minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, on Dec. 28 overruled Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who in July revoked a permit to relocate endangered coral colonies at the construction site in Oura Bay at Henoko.

Kaneko’s notice to Okinawa called Tamaki’s revoking the permit from the Okinawa Defense Bureau “inappropriate,” though the minister stopped short of a comprehensive explanation, a spokesman for the prefectural Fisheries Division told Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday.

A spokesman for the ministry, however, said the prefecture’s claim that permit conditions were violated did not stand up.

“Okinawa prefecture claimed that the Okinawa Defense Bureau violated the conditions for transplanting the corals by implementing it in summer, but we came to the decision that the conditions were not violated,” the spokesman said by phone Tuesday. “Okinawa prefecture did not go through the administrative process that was required to withdraw the approval, so that made the prefecture’s decision illegal.”

Kaneko, stating the work had already been completed, also dismissed a Defense Bureau request to review Tamaki’s canceling a second permit to move another 830 coral colonies, the spokesman said.

The prefecture is weighing its options, including a lawsuit, a prefectural spokesman said, “but we haven’t decided what we are going to do.”

Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi acknowledged Kaneko’s ruling in comments to reporters Dec. 28. He said the ministry would follow expert opinion while continuing to transplant endangered coral colonies at the site.

“We will continue to do it properly,” he said. He said they would monitor water temperature to ensure the coral has the greatest chance for survival.

The coral project began in 2019 with a request from the Defense Bureau, which represents Japan’s Ministry of Defense on the island, to move 40,000 coral colonies from the construction site north to the opposite side of the bay, according to a copy of the plan on the bureau’s website.

The coral includes numerous types of endangered species, including porites okinawensis, which is on Japan’s Red List of threatened species.

The prefecture denied the transplant permit but also filed a lawsuit against the central government, alleging the bureau had killed five of nine endangered colonies transplanted the previous year.

Japan’s Supreme Court dismissed the prefecture’s suit last summer and Tamaki reluctantly approved permitting on July 28. Work at the site was halted two days later after Tamaki said the bureau had violated the prefecture’s conditions.

Tamaki requested that work proceed slowly, and not take place during the typhoon or breeding seasons or during periods of high sea temperatures.

Japan’s Defense Ministry then asked Kaneko for administrative review.

The July 30 permit revocation was the latest attempt by Tamaki to halt the relocation of Marine air operations on Okinawa from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is in a densely packed urban area in Ginowan, to the Marines’ remote northern base Camp Schwab.

The runway being built into Oura Bay was designed so Marine aircraft no longer have to fly over residential areas to approach or depart the base. MCAS Futenma would be closed and returned to local authorities.

Since his election in late 2018, Tamaki has made several tries at stopping the project. He rescinded construction permits that year after the seabed in parts of the construction zone was found to be soft and potentially unstable.

After Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation reinstated the permits, Tamaki sued.

The prefecture on Dec. 28 appealed to Japan’s Supreme Court a lower court’s dismissal of Tamaki’s suit, according to the prefectural website. No court date has been set, a spokesman for the Supreme Court told Stars and Stripes by phone on Tuesday.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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