(Mainichi: February 27, 2015 – p. 3)
On Feb. 26, the Okinawa Prefectural Government began an on-site investigation with divers in waters off Henoko, Nago City, because it appears that concrete blocks dropped by the Okinawa Defense Bureau there for the relocation of the U.S. forces’ Futenma Air Station to Henoko have damaged coral reefs. The probe on that day found damaged coral reefs outside the area where the prefectural government had granted permission to crush reefs for reclamation. Governor Takeshi Onaga will decide on whether to withdraw the permission based on the results of this investigation. Meanwhile, the national government, which is preparing to resume its seabed drilling survey, is protesting against this investigation. Mutual distrust continues to grow, rendering a solution to the relocation issue even more uncertain.
Damaged coral reefs outside permitted area
By Keiichi Sato, Tamami Kawakami, Hojin Fukunaga
Katsuya Shinzato, head of the Okinawa government’s Fisheries Division, announced the results of the first day of investigation by 10 divers at the Teima fishing port in Nago, stating that “divers investigated eight sites outside the permitted area and found damaged coral reefs under concrete blocks at one spot and other cases of damaged coral reefs.” These reefs were photographed and their location identified with GPS.
After assuming office as governor, Onaga created a third party committee to probe if the permission granted by the previous governor had no legal flaws. However, the government is expected to start reclamation work before the committee comes up with its report in July.
Amid this stalemate, in early February a citizens’ group conducted an underwater survey that found evidences of damaged coral reefs. Onaga ordered the Okinawa Defense Bureau to halt concrete block dropping on Feb. 16 and announced plans to conduct on-site investigations.
At first, the Defense Bureau had claimed that it was told by the prefectural government previously that work to set up buoys to demarcate the off-limits sea area, including the dropping of concrete blocks, did not require any permit and refused to meet the prefectural government’s demand to submit the relevant documents, but Onaga threatened that “insincere response may constitute ground for a harsh decision, including the possibility of withdrawal of the permit to crush reefs.” The Defense Bureau finally submitted documents on Feb. 25, but the confrontation continues.
The prefectural government’s position is that withdrawal of the permit will preclude the resumption of the drilling survey. Onaga and his aides are also hoping that heightened public interest in the issue of damaged coral reefs will serve as a tailwind for opposition to Henoko relocation.
The Okinawa government’s investigation on Feb. 26 was conducted outside the off-limits area in accordance with the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). It reckons that there are other sites where coral reefs outside the permitted area have been damaged. It plans to obtain the U.S. forces’ permission to investigate also within the off-limits area before Onaga makes a decision on whether to withdraw the permit.
Okinawa University President Hiroshi Nakachi, who specializes in public administration, points out that if the permit is withdrawn, “the Tokyo government will probably respond by suing the prefectural government and proceed with the relocation process arbitrarily.”
Tokyo government says its actions legal
By Noriaki Kinoshita, Katsuya Takahashi
The government reacted sharply to Okinawa’s underwater probe. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated sternly at his news conference on Feb. 26 that “it is extremely regrettable that this on-site investigation was initiated unilaterally.” He denied that this will affect the reclamation work schedule. He also said that the withdrawal of the permit to crush reefs is “out of the question.”
The government’s position is that minimal damage to coral reefs is inevitable. As if corroborating this position, new workboats were added to the large workboats equipped with cranes on Feb. 26 in the sea area where the drilling survey will be conducted. Preparations are underway for resuming the survey that has remained suspended since last September.
Relations between the Tokyo government and Okinawa have been frigid since Onaga became governor. Suga, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani have not even met with Onaga, who got elected on a platform of opposing Henoko relocation even though he is a conservative. Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members are saying cynically that he is “becoming desperate.”
However, the LDP lost in all four single-seat districts in Okinawa in the House of Representatives election last December, so it cannot afford to take the popular will lightly. Regardless of legality, if relocation work moves forward amid the intense conflict, the Abe administration is at risk of being perceived as “high-handed.”
A LDP official in Okinawa voices concern: “Mr. Suga and others may be underestimating the situation, thinking that Okinawa will accept relocation within the prefecture in the end, but implementing the relocation forcibly will only pour oil on the flames.” There is an evident gap between the government – which is supposedly trying to reduce Okinawa’s base-hosting burden and claiming that relocation within Okinawa is the “only solution” – and public opinion in Okinawa. (Abridged)