NAGO, Okinawa Prefecture--Land reclamation work began here April 25 for a new U.S. military base, inducing a sense of helplessness followed by anger among protesters and Okinawa prefectural officials.
“This is a very strong-armed tactic that appears to totally ignore the voices from Okinawa,” said Katsuhiro Yoshida, the policy coordination official for the prefectural government who handles military base issues.
The central government plans to fill the waters around the Henoko district of Nago with stones, sand and dirt for the eventual construction of a runway for the U.S. military.
The base will take over the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, currently located in a heavily populated area of Ginowan in central Okinawa Prefecture.
The United States 21 years ago agreed to return the Futenma land to Japan. The Henoko district was eventually picked as a replacement site for the air station, but local opposition delayed work on that plan.
Around 9:20 a.m., cranes began lifting nets containing crushed rock and then dropping them along the shore north of Camp Schwab in Nago. The work on April 25 was concentrated on the northernmost part of the planned reclamation site.
The rocks will likely serve as the foundation of a seawall built along the outer perimeter of the projected runway site.
The Okinawa Defense Bureau plans to first construct a seawall to delineate the outer perimeter and fill in the interior area before the end of this fiscal year.
Yoshida went to the site for confirmation after the Okinawa prefectural government received word from the bureau in the morning about the start of reclamation work.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga has taken a number of legal steps to halt the land reclamation project. But the Supreme Court in December 2016 ruled against him, prompting the Defense Ministry to resume preparations for the work.
Onaga, who insists his prefecture is shouldering a disproportionate burden in hosting U.S. military facilities in Japan, is considering further steps to stop construction as well as calling a prefectural referendum on the Futenma relocation project.
About 90 protesters gathered in front of Camp Schwab early in the morning to demonstrate against the land reclamation work.
When word was received that rocks had been lowered into the water, the crowd grew silent.
But they soon stood up and shouted their opposition, vowing to never give up the battle.
“By starting construction of the seawall, the government is sending a signal to the Okinawa people opposed to land reclamation to give up the fight,” a 75-year-old protester said. “If a base is built, it will not go away for 100 years. We will regret it if we don’t take action now.”