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Editorial: Abe putting U.S. before Okinawa in starting base work off Henoko

  • February 7, 2017
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 13:05
  • English Press

The Abe administration’s strong-arming in relocating a U.S. base in Okinawa Prefecture has further revealed its steely determination to place a higher priority on Japan’s relationship with the United States than the wishes of the people of Okinawa.


The central government began offshore construction work in waters off the Henoko district of Nago on Feb. 6, taking a major step to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the prefecture’s Ginowan to the district.


Work will soon begin to drop 228 concrete blocks, weighing 11 to 14 tons each, to anchor silt curtains to the Henoko seafloor.


Late last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the central government in a legal dispute over the relocation plan, delivering a setback to the prefectural government. The ruling prompted the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resume related work on land.


But the administration’s decision to embark on offshore work at this time apparently reflects its strong desire to win favor with the new administration of President Donald Trump.


In his meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Tokyo on Feb. 3, Abe said moving the Futenma air base to Henoko is the “only solution” and promised to steadily proceed with the relocation work.


As Abe succeeded in getting a nod to his policy from Mattis, the prime minister apparently wants to start carrying out his promise before his meeting with Trump on Feb. 10.


Japan and the United States agreed on the plan to relocate the Futenma base to Henoko in 1996 as a step to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting so many U.S. bases. But a string of missteps and unfortunate developments have created a deep rift over the issue between the government and people in the prefecture.


A series of elections have left no doubt about strong public opposition to the relocation plan among Okinawans.


The central government, however, has taken forceful actions to accumulate a number of faits accomplis concerning the Futenma relocation to Henoko. It seems the administration is simply waiting for people in Okinawa to give up.


The administration’s posture is only deepening the division between the two sides instead of narrowing it.


In the manner it is proceeding with the work, the government shows no signs of trying to win support from people in Okinawa.


When former Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima approved the land reclamation off Nago for building a new facility to replace the Futenma base, the central and prefectural governments agreed to hold talks before the start of actual work.


But the prefectural government received a document about the beginning of offshore work on Feb. 3. There was not sufficient time for discussions.


“It’s a very rough way to deal with the issue,” Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga said in a reasonable criticism of the government’s approach.


The offshore work could change the configuration of the seafloor and thereby affect marine resources in the area.


Under prefectural rules governing fishing resources and rights, the central government needs to obtain the governor’s permission for destroying coral reefs to proceed with the offshore work.


The permit allowing workers to destroy coral reefs issued by Onaga’s predecessor is set to expire at the end of March.


Citing the fact that the local fishermen’s cooperative has waived the fishing rights in the area, the central government contends that a renewal of the permit is unnecessary. But the prefectural government argues it must be renewed because the cooperative’s move only represents a partial change in the fishing rights, not its loss.


What should be done when there are such disagreements is to try to find common ground through talks.


If the central government continues the work without applying for a renewal of the permit, the prefectural government plans to take administrative and legal actions to stop it.


A further worsening of the conflict between the two sides could destabilize Tokyo’s relationship with Washington itself.


What the Abe administration should do is to convey the voices of the Okinawan people to the Trump administration and make serious efforts to find an alternative to the current Henoko plan. It should not simply forge ahead with the construction work.

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