Japan court orders approval of modified plan for Marine Corps runways

by Tommy Grant

TOKYO — A Japanese court on Wednesday ordered the governor of Okinawa to approve the central government’s modified plan for landfill work at the planned relocation site of a key U.S. military base on the southern island despite persistent opposition and protests by residents.

The decision will move forward the suspended construction at a time Okinawa’s strategic importance is becoming key for the Japan-U.S. military alliance in the face of growing tensions with China. Japan also rapidly seeks to buildup its military in the southwestern region.

The ruling by the Fukuoka High Court Naha branch allows the Land and Transport Ministry to order the modification work designed to reinforce extremely soft ground at the designated relocation site for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, overriding Gov. Denny Tamaki’s disapproval. The ruling ordered Tamaki to issue the approval within three working days.

Tamaki said it was unjust that the will of the residents is crushed by the central government.

Tamaki, noting the spirit of local government autonomy and democracy, said in a statement that the ruling that allows the government’s forcible execution of its planned construction of a new military base is “absolutely unacceptable.”

If completed, the new site will serve a key Marine Corps facility for the region and will be also home to MV-22 Ospreys that are currently deployed at Futenma.

Tamaki can still appeal to the Supreme Court, but the local government at this point has no power to stop the work unless the top court overturns the decision.

Okinawa and the central government have long tussled over the relocation of the Futenma base.

The Japanese and U.S. governments initially agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma air station a year after the rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. military personnel led to a massive anti-base movement. But persistent protests and lawsuits between Okinawa and Tokyo have held up the plan for nearly 30 years.

Japan’s central government began the reclamation work off Henoko Bay on the eastern coast of Okinawa in 2018 to pave the way for the relocation of the Futenma base from its crowded neighborhood on the island.

The central government later found out that large areas of the designated reclamation site are on soft ground, which some experts described “as soft as mayonnaise,” and submitted a revision to the original plan with additional land improvement. But Okinawa’s prefectural government rejected the revision plan and suspended the reclamation work.

The ground improvement plan requires tens of thousands of pillars and massive amounts of soil, which opponents say would damage the environment. It is expected to cost 930 billion yen ($6.5 billion), 2.5 times the initial estimate, and take 12 years to finish, according to the Defense Ministry.

The Supreme Court in September turned down Okinawa’s appeal in another lawsuit that ordered the prefecture to withdraw its rejection of the modified landfill plan.

Tamaki has called for a significant reduction of the U.S. military on the island, which is home to more than half of 50,000 American troops based in Japan under the bilateral security pact. Tamaki also has demanded the immediate closure of Futenma base and the scrapping of the base construction at Henoko. Okinawa accounts for just 0.6% of Japanese land.

Tokyo and Washington say the relocation within Okinawa, instead of moving it elsewhere as demanded by many Okinawans, is the only solution.

“We believe that action should be taken promptly in line with this ruling,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi said. He pledged that the government will continue to make effort for the return of the Futenma air station as soon as possible to reduce the burden from the base.

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