Okinawa governor withdraws permission to relocate US military base

Hercules aircraft are parked on the tarmac at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan on Okinawa © Issei Kato
Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga has revoked permission granted for the construction of a new US military base designed to shelter the US Marine Corps after relocation. The Japanese government opposes the decision, insisting on resuming construction works.

“I have sent notice that I am revoking permission,” Takeshi Onaga said at a news conference on Tuesday in the Okinawan capital of Naha, as cited by The New York Times. His statement was met with applause from about 200 protesters opposing the construction of the base.

“I will continue to do everything in my power to fulfill my campaign pledge of not allowing the construction of a new base at Henoko,” he added, the Asahi Shimbun reports.

The Okinawa governor said that an independent report on the legal aspects of the permission given by his predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, revealed a number of legal flaws.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense disagrees with Onaga, criticizing his decision and saying that the permission was absolutely legal.

“We stand firmly in our position that there was no error in approving the land reclamation work and that the order to rescind it is illegal,” Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said as cited by Asahi Shimbun.

“We will swiftly move ahead with procedures for submitting a complaint to appeal the illegal rescinding of the approval,” he added noting that he is going to submit a complaint with the Ministry of Land.

Nakaima also said that the relocation operation would be suspended but the ministry would take measures to resume it as soon as possible.

Other Japanese officials are also skeptical of the Onaga’s decision.

“There was no legal error in the approval,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga said at a news conference in Tokyo. “There is no change in our thinking of moving ahead with work in connection with the relocation,” he added.

The Japanese government wants to relocate the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from the heavily populated city of Ginowan, where a military helicopter crashed onto the nearby campus of Okinawa International University in 2004. In 2013 the former governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, gave the green light to the government’s plan to station the base in Henoko.

The situation changed in 2014 when Takeshi Onaga won the election having promised to stop the construction of the new base. He offered to close the base in Ginowan without relocating it to another part of Okinawa, both because of environmental concerns as well as the burden which US bases place on Okinawa.

Onaga held a number of talks with the Japanese government but failed to reach a compromise.

“Unfortunately, although I met five times with the central government and explained Okinawa’s position, the history of the bases and the feelings of the Okinawans, I got the impression that such thinking was not taken into account,” he concluded.

He also visited the US asking to stop the construction works but was told that the US has an agreement with Japan and any existing problems would be a Japanese internal issue.

Okinawa hosts about 25,000 US troops – more than half of those stationed in Japan – which seems unfair to many people, given that Okinawa constitutes less than 1 percent of the whole of Japan.