Government cautious in seeking landfill permit for Henoko

Japan will carefully consider when to apply to the Okinawa governor for approval for reclamation work that is crucial to the planned relocation of a U.S Marine Corps base in the southernmost prefecture.

Foreign and defense ministry officials hope for an early application so that Japan can make progress on stalled efforts to relocate the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Ginowan to the Henoko district in Nago City, but sources say it is not easy for the central government to restore a relationship of trust with Okinawa after relations soured under the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen taking great care to decide when to submit the application to Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, and a visit to the prefecture is being considered to pave the way for a new relationship between the governor and the new central government.  At a news conference on Dec. 28th last year, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the government will decide when to make its application after the public notice period for the government’s environmental impact assessment report on the Futenma relocation ends on Jan. 29th.

The Defense Ministry does not rule out the possibility that the application may be submitted before the end of this month. “Unlike February, January has 31 days,” a senior official said.  The ministry fears that Japan might have to scrap the relocation plan if the application is put off until after the next House of Councillors election coming up this summer, or after the Nago mayoral election slated for January 2014.  If there are delays, a key issue in the elections would be whether to relocate the Futenma base within the prefecture.

People at the defense and foreign ministries back an early application, recalling that Nakaima supported the Futenma relocation plan before the DPJ came to power in 2009.
At a news conference on Dec. 26th, Abe said Japan needs to enhance its ties with the United States as the first step to correct Japanese government missteps on the foreign and security policy fronts.  But at a news conference five days earlier, Abe was more cautious. “I will make efforts to win local support” so that Japan can keep the current relocation plan basically unchanged, he said.

Abe will send Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Onodera to Okinawa in order to improve relations between the central government and local governments.  Nakaima switched positions to reject the Futenma relocation plan after local opposition was rekindled by the DPJ-led government, which flip-flopped on whether or not the base should be moved outside the prefecture.

In the House of Representatives election last month, all four Liberal Democratic Party candidates in Okinawa secured Lower House seats by promising to relocate the Futenma base outside the prefecture, or even outside Japan.  Even if the central government applies for the governor’s approval, it is uncertain whether Nakaima will give the go-ahead for the reclamation work.