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Okinawa Marine Air Station Move in Doubt After Election

September 10, 2018

Plans to move the long-established US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma may be shelved after the September 9 elections in Okinawa.

A view of the existing Futenma U.S. Marine Base in Okinawa. Photo: boviate, CC

Both the U.S. government and the Japanese government had hoped for some time to move the US’s current Okinawa military base. The facility is currently located in a relatively crowded residential area in Ginowan. The plan had been to move it to a new place in Nago, near the coast. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself had helped push for the plan.

The situation already had looked difficult for the Marine base relocation. Previous crimes committed by US Marine personnel on the island, plus accidents, had strained relations between Ginowan and the base for some time. Nago was an alternative which would been easier from a congestion standpoint, as it is far less populated than Ginowan.

The former governor of the prefecture, Takeshi Onaga, had been extremely unhappy with the U.S. and the way the base handled problems when they had come up in the past. He had demanded to get the Futenma base moved outside the prefecture, claiming keeping it in Okinawa was an unreasonable burden for the prefecture to manage. When he lost support for that, he tried to block landfill work needed to prepare the new site, challenging its legality. That work had been authorized by his predecessor. When Onaga’s legal challenge was finally overturned by Japan’s Supreme Court in 2016, construction restarted.

Onaga did not give up on his cause, despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strong backing of keeping the base in Okinawa and allowing the relocation. Abe and the central government of the country believe the US  base is critical as a defense location, to help protect against other hostile forces in the region. While Abe’s position stood firm, Onaga did his best to stall the process. In July, shortly after having surgery to deal with his pancreatic cancer, Onaga instructed local officials to retract the previously approved landfill permits. He and his staff said the proposed site had not been properly reviewed for environmental issues and that initial excavation had revealed the site was far softer than expected. Both of those were enough to require a pause in construction.

Onaga died in early August from his pancreatic cancer. His temporary successor, deputy governor Kiichiro Jahana, has continued to pursue Onaga’s instructions about blocking the site. On August 31, the prefecture formally pulled back its prior approval to go ahead with the landfall.

Two sets of elections have then intervened which may further complicate the move of the Marine base.  Nago, the city where the base would be moving, held local assembly elections on September 9. Voter turnout was 65%, 5% up from the 2014 election. While those votes are still being tallied, estimates show candidates who were opposed to bringing the base to Nago would win a minimum of 14 seats out of a total of 26 seats. That’s a clear majority which could end up blocking any chance of the move, at least without central government direction.

Next comes the Okinawa gubernatorial election to elect Onaga’s permanent successor. That too is a battle where one of the main issues is whether to keep the Marine Base where it is, let it move, or perhaps push yet again for relocating it elsewhere in Japan. With the Nago government likely leaning against the move and sentiment within the prefecture already strongly negative towards the existing U.S. Marine base, the candidates may have a hard time supporting the base move. That could set the stage for a major confrontation first between the new governor and Prime Minister Abe, and then perhaps with the U.S. government as well.

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