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Ministry deals Okinawa new blow on U.S. base issue

  • December 29, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 5:30 p.m.
  • English Press

The fisheries ministry sided with the Defense Ministry in the latest of a series of confrontations with Okinawa prefectural authorities over a highly contentious land reclamation project to construct a U.S. military base in the southernmost prefecture.


The issue this time concerns broken promises by the central government over the protection of coral reefs that prefectural authorities insist will be irreparably damaged by the construction work in waters off Nago in the Henoko district. 


Fisheries minister Genjiro Kaneko on Dec. 28 nullified the prefectural government’s decision to withdraw its earlier approval for transplanting numerous colonies of corals from the site.


The Defense Ministry is overseeing the project to construct a new airfield to take over the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan in the prefecture.


Some of the landfill off Henoko has been completed since reclamation work started in December 2018, but tens of thousands of coral colonies remain in the reclamation area.


The fisheries minister’s ruling followed a request filed by the Defense Ministry for a review of the prefectural government’s decision in August under the administrative complaint review law.


According to the Fisheries Agency, the Defense Ministry’s transplantation plan involves about 40,000 colonies of small corals.


Those coral colonies exist in four areas of the reclamation site.


The fisheries minister’s ruling applies to about 39,000 coral colonies inhabiting three of the four sections in the reclamation area.


Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki on July 28 gave approval to the transplantation work on condition that the task be undertaken while avoiding the summer typhoon season and the period when water temperatures rise, so as to give the reefs a better chance of survival.


But the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau forged ahead with the work the following day.


The prefectural government withdrew its permit on July 30, accusing the ministry of not meeting the agreed conditions.


Still, the fisheries minister asserted in its Dec. 28 ruling that the Defense Ministry side was following what was agreed on and there are “no grounds” for justifying the prefectural government’s withdrawal of the permit.


Kaneko dismissed the request for a review of the permit cancellation involving the remaining 830 coral colonies in one section, stating that the transplantation work had already been completed.


In a related development, the prefectural government on Dec. 28 appealed a high court ruling upholding a lower court decision that dismissed the prefectural government’s lawsuit over the landfill project.


In a Dec. 15 ruling, the Fukuoka High Court’s Naha branch labeled as invalid a lawsuit brought by the prefectural government over the land ministry’s decision to repeal the prefectural government’s cancellation of the permit for the land reclamation work off Henoko.


The prefectural government rescinded the approval for reclamation in 2018 after it emerged that the planned reclamation site includes a vast patch of soft seabed.

But the Defense Ministry referred the matter to the land ministry, and by doing, according to critics, effectively abused the administrative complaint review law intended to allow residents to file a complaint against administrative authorities.


In the event, the land ministry sided with the Defense Ministry, just as the fisheries ministry has done in the latest matter concerning coral reefs.


In 2019, the prefectural government filed a suit over the land ministry’s decision, arguing that it violated its local autonomy.


The prefectural government is fiercely opposed to the construction of yet another new U.S. base on the island, which already hosts about 70 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan, and has fought a host of court battles to stop the Henoko project. Approval for the reclamation work was given in 2013 when a pro-central government governor was in office.


The central government has played hardball on the issue, despite snowballing costs, massive setbacks and projections that it will take many years to complete the project. As a result, it has resorted to various avenues to counter Okinawa’s opposition to the project, including the administrative complaint review law.


The Kishida administration had signaled its willingness to listen to what Okinawans have to say, but increasingly seems to be following the hard line adopted by previous administrations.

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