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SECURITY > Okinawa

Okinawa base debate ignores the bigger picture

  • January 25, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

By Philip Brasor


Like many construction projects supported by the public sector, the new U.S. Marine Corps air base being built in the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, has seen its budget skyrocket since it was first proposed and its completion date postponed. When the project was first announced jointly by the U.S. military and Japan in 1996, the construction period was going to be five years for landfill work and three years for building the airfield. Henoko is meant to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is considered a danger to residents of Ginowan City and, according to a previous plan, Futenma would be “returned” to Okinawa by 2022 at the earliest. On Dec. 25, the Defense Ministry announced that the land would not be returned until the mid- to late 2030s.


The reason for the latest delay is that the seabed of Oura Bay, where the Henoko construction is underway, is too soft to support an airfield and, therefore, will require more reinforcement than originally planned. The design for the work has been altered, which means a new construction plan has to be approved by a local government that is against the project in the first place. This opposition, demonstrated by a majority of residents voting to reject the project, has not swayed the central government from proceeding under the usual strategy, which is that once a project has begun, it is impossible to stop, regardless of the size and extent of any popular or legal resistance. When he was in Okinawa on Dec. 22, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters he would not comment on the reapplication because it was still being studied, while Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki has indicated he will reject the new plan, but nobody sincerely believes the project will be canceled.


The media focus has been on the conflict between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Okinawan prefectural government. Less attention is paid to the impracticality of the new base. According to the Okinawa Times on Dec. 14, 2018, landfill work began on Dec. 3, 2018, and, in the subsequent year, only 1.1 percent of the soil needed for the landfill had been transferred, so unless work is accelerated appreciably, that means landfill work alone could take almost 100 years. This supposition was mentioned during a discussion on Henoko on the web news program Democracy Times, whose participants also pointed out that after the Okinawan government rejects the new plan, there could be more lawsuits, thus adding another layer of delay to the project. Realistically speaking, Henoko may never be completed, and yet the central government shows no signs it will even consider changing its mind. 


On Jan. 3, the Tokyo Shimbun published an exclusive about the panel of scholars who had been recruited to study the new construction plan. Made up of university-employed experts, including retired bureaucrats, the panel concluded that the plan was sound and recommended it be submitted for approval, despite the fact that, as the Democracy Times participants pointed out, the new construction entails sinking more than 70,000 piles up to 90 meters into the seabed, something that has never been attempted in Japan before. 


Suspecting that the panel, whose members were selected by the Defense Ministry, was rubber-stamping the plan, the Tokyo Shimbun looked deeper and found that three members worked at universities that had received research donations from private companies with a direct monetary interest in the project. Two of these companies have already taken orders for the project, one for ¥16.5 billion and the other ¥4 billion. 


The Defense Ministry told the Tokyo Shimbun that there was no relationship between these companies’ donations and the panel’s findings, and, in any case, it wasn’t the ministry’s job to monitor private contributions to universities. The newspaper pointed out that this isn’t the first time a panel involved with Henoko was suspected of being influenced. Five years ago, when a group of academics approved an environmental impact assessment, four members were criticized for taking research funds from interested companies. Four days later, the Tokyo Shimbun ran another article claiming that two of the panelists were once a paid consultant to another company that had been hired by the Defense Ministry to help draft the new Henoko construction plan. 


According to the Asahi Shimbun, the ministry reportedly knew about the instability of the seabed and kept it hidden when it started construction against the wishes of local residents. In effect, the project is running on its own momentum based on the justification, as voiced by the Defense Ministry on Dec. 25, that “Henoko is the only solution” to the Futenma problem. Of course, the Futenma base is still in use and will likely remain that way until Henoko is completed, unless the United States decides it doesn’t need it anymore. There is a plan to transfer marines to Guam at some point, assigned to a new base now partially being built with Japanese money. According to the central government, the construction of Henoko will now cost ¥930 billion, or almost three times the original estimate, although Okinawa Prefecture thinks it will be more than ¥2 trillion.


The mainstream press is handling the controversy gingerly, but that wasn’t the mood on a web broadcast from the East Asia Community Institute run by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over the new year. He and journalist Hajime Takano joked about how quickly the academic panel approved the new construction plan and, referring to the Tokyo Shimbun scoop, openly surmised that corruption was involved. The government had decided to go ahead with construction and just needed some kind of cosmetic justification, so they put together this panel. Hatoyama, it should be noted, has skin in this game, since he was forced to resign the premiership after the bureaucracy prevented him from keeping his campaign promise to move the Futenma base out of Okinawa. Long retired from politics, he can now afford to laugh.

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