by Jon Day
TOKYO, April 1 (Xinhua) -- A rift is widening dramatically between Japan's central government and local officials and citizens in Okinawa Prefecture following an order by its governor for the defense bureau to halt drilling at the site of a planned new U.S. military base in a coastal region on the island being overturned and sparking protests in the region.
Japan's Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said Tuesday he hopes the central government will begin work involved with reclaiming land from the sea in the coastal region of Henoko, in Nago City on Okinawa island, with drilling work concluded by June so the main reclamation work can begin in the middle 2015 and the new U.S. base's construction expedited.
Reclaiming land from the sea is an integral part of a joint Japan-U.S. plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station from the densely populated district of Ginowan on the island, to the coastal region of Henoko. But the four-year bilateral plan has drawn a great deal of resistance from Okinawa's prefectural officials and citizens, who are staunchly opposed to the relocation and feel overburdened by their decades-long U.S. base hosting duties.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, an opponent to the base's relocation, on March 23 ordered the regional defense bureau to halt its drilling operations off Henoko and threatened to rescind a permit granted to the defense ministry by his predecessor.
Onaga, who became governor due to local support for his ardent opposition to the planned construction of the new U.S. base, previously said that the defense ministry's underwater operations have damaged a coral reef in the area by sinking concrete blocks weighing up to 45 tons into the sea, to tether floating "no entry" signs around the controversial drilling zone.
The blocks, outside the demarkation zone, it was subsequently found, had crushed an endangered coral reef and officials are concerned that more damage may have been caused within the "no entry" zone, which the U.S. military refuses to grant local officials access to, to inspect.
But despite Onaga's order, ultimately, the construction of the base entirely, saying the drilling operations by the defense ministry will cause irrevocable damage to the local environment and describing the actions of the defense ministry as "utterly deplorable," the central government has overturned Onaga's demands, with Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Monday nullifying Onaga's instruction and permitting the defense bureau to continue with their drilling work.
Hayashi's reversal of Onaga's order angered local residents, who, once again took to the streets near to the planned site of the new base and voiced their anger and dismay at the central government, with local media quoting protestors describing the situation as an, "outrageous act that ignores the sentiments of prefectural residents."
The central government, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has consistently stated, plans to move forward with the drilling and construction plans regardless of the local opposition in support of its governor. Onaga himself, however, may now look to nullify Hayashi's verdict and revoke the defense bureau's permit as originally threatened, which would see the case go to court, the rift widen and the impasse rumble on, and local sentiment towards the central government worsen.
As the rift continues to widen between local prefectural officials, its citizens and the central government, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will likely be scratching his head for a solution, albeit a short-term one, as a keenly-eyed visit to the United States and talks with U.S. President Barack Obama loom.
The Okinawa issue has been a consistent source of irritation for Washington due to Tokyo's inability to move forward with plans to relocate the base, as part of the U.S. broader realignment of its troops here. Washington has instructed Tokyo to work harder to gain the support of the local citizens of Okinawa for the construction of the new base, but four administrations, thus far, including Abe's, have failed, causing the project to become severely delayed and tensions on the island to rise to a fever pitch.
And while Nakatani has made it clear that the local chapter of his defense ministry will soldier on with the original plans to relocate the base to the pristine coastal region of Henoko, and, in doing so, has once again, somewhat autocratically, brushed aside the local citizens' and officials' feelings on the matter, Abe himself said he wants to try and garner more local support.
Abe, who is increasingly under the international media spotlight ahead of his visit to the U.S., said that as well as moving forward with the base relocation, he wants to return other military facilities and land to the people of Okinawa.
In an Upper House session Monday, Abe said it would be efficacious for his government to talk to officials on the island, including Onaga, and aim to build more trust. But political watchers here, however, have said that Abe's new-found congenial remarks on the matter run completely contrary to actual moves by the central government, as evidenced in the words of Suga, Nakatani and the moves by the regional defense bureau.
Observers have stated that it may be the case that Abe needs to be seen to be actively improving the ever-worsening relationship between his government and prefectural officials and citizens in Okinawa, ahead of his trip to the U.S. or deal with the wrath of Washington on the issue, which under former administrations, had negatively impacted bilateral relations between the two allies each time Tokyo failed.
Abe said that on Tuesday the U.S. Camp Zukeran, which is spread over a large area in the central part of the main island and more than 1,000 hectares in the densely populated regions will be returned to the island over the next 15 years.
But local citizens have heard it all before and, according to local sources, there is a growing mistrust of anything the central government says on such issues, due to the current administration' s plans to bulldoze through Onaga's orders and previous administrations flip-flopping over the Futenma relocation issue.
Such mistrust is leading to increasing frustration from the local citizens, who have been seen taking to the streets with placards and megaphones, and, in a number of instances recently, taking to the water in small boats to show their opposition to the central government's moves.
Anti-U.S. sentiment has been steadily growing on the island as base-related pollution and accidents threatens the environment and safety of the locals and crimes committed by U.S. military personnel, in particular, continue to spark fury among the locals.
Political analysts have said the central government needs to remain cognizant of the feelings of the people of Okinawa and the history of their base-hosting suffering, which, among other heinous crimes, includes the brutal rape of an elementary schoolgirl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen in 1995 and other incidents such as in 2004 when a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion heavy assault transport helicopter plowed into the Okinawa International University in Ginowan.
The situation in Okinawa has been described as something of a powder keg at the moment, as Okinawan locals shoulder the burden of hosting 75 percent of Japan's U.S. bases and around half of all the Japan-based U.S. military personnel, with the tiny island only accounting for just one percent of Japan's total land area.
In 1970, following an unpunished drunk driving incident by a U. S. soldier, more than 3,000 local residents took to the streets of Okinawa and attacked U.S. service people, their vehicles and successfully entered military premises and burned buildings.
While violence can never be advocated or condoned, the message from analysts close to the matter is that Abe's government must stop regarding the local population of Okinawa as pushovers, or lesser citizens than those residing on mainland Japan, or history could indeed repeat itself.
TOKYO, March 30 (Xinhua) -- Clashes between the Japanese central government and Okinawa Prefecture over the relocation of a U.S. military base are intensifying as Japanese Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Monday that an instruction by local governor to halt the construction work is invalid.
Prefecture Governor Takeshi Onaga last Monday ordered the Defense Ministry (MOD) bureau in Okinawa to suspend all work off the Henoko, the relocation site of the U.S. Marien Corps Futenma Air Station, saying a concrete anchor thrown into the sea for a drilling survey of the reef is believed to have damaged coral.Full Story