NAHA, Japan — Workers delivered by ship on Tuesday massive construction materials to the planned relocation site for a U.S. air base in the island prefecture of Okinawa, as the Japanese government seeks to speed up the work despite strong local opposition.
At 10:20 a.m., a ship carrying crushed rocks equal to around 50 10-ton truckloads docked at the Henoko coastal area of Nago, where U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan will be relocated by reclaiming land off the coastal zone.
The ship was escorted by Japan Coast Guard rubber rafts, while opponents on a small boat protested just outside the restricted sea area.
In Tokyo, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the delivery of the construction materials by sea is meant “to reduce environmental burden and to facilitate and efficiently carry out the construction work,” in reference to transportation by trucks.
Under the Japan-U.S. plan to transfer the Futenma base from the crowded residential area of Ginowan, the Japanese government is scheduled to reclaim around 157 hectares of land in waters off the Henoko area and construct a V-shaped runway.
The government began building seawalls in the coastal area in April, taking a major step toward the controversial relocation more than 20 years after an initial accord was forged between Tokyo and Washington. The seawalls are being built to enclose the reclamation area.
Several dozen workers watched the stone materials being delivered by the ship on Tuesday. They were then carried into the U.S. Marines’ Camp Schwab, which is located near the construction site.
The newly delivered materials will be used to build seawalls on the southwestern side of the planned landfill area, work on which started earlier this month.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga had urged the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau to suspend transportation of the materials by sea until talks on the issue are arranged. But the bureau has rejected the request and moved on.
Onaga and many Okinawans are against the transfer of the Futenma base within the prefecture, which already hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan. They want the Futenma base to be removed outside the prefecture altogether.
The central government has maintained that the current relocation plan is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by American troops under the Japan-U.S. alliance.
The Okinawa government is also concerned about potential environmental damage through the construction work. The sea off Henoko has coral reefs and is a habitat of the endangered dugong.
The ministry’s local bureau said Tuesday 10 colonies of coral designated as species feared to be extinct have been found at two points in the waters off Henoko.
The bureau said it is confirming the condition of the coral reefs. But the findings could create more friction between the central and local governments, as Tokyo will need the Okinawa governor’s permission to transfer the coral reefs to safer areas.
The central and Okinawa governments are also engaged in a court battle after Onaga filed a fresh lawsuit in July in another attempt to block the Futenma relocation plan.
Tokyo and Washington agreed on the return of the land for the contentious Futenma base in 1996 and announced in 2006 a road map for realigning the U.S. military in Japan, which included relocating the airfield to Henoko.