Nakaima approves land reclamation at Oura Bay

Okinawa’s governor has ended 17 years of stalemate over relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a location in the sparsely populated Henoko district of Nago City, signing a measure Friday that gives the green light for Japan to begin land reclamation to prepare the new airbase.

While Hirokazu Nakaima’s decision to approve the controversial landfill project will sit well with both the Japanese and American governments, a furious reaction was fast in coming from project opponents in Okinawa.  The Nago City Assembly lashed out at the governor, virtually calling him a traitor for reversing his long-standing opposition to putting the Futenma Replacement Facility in Okinawa, and protest rallies were quickly mounted in front of Okinawa Prefectural Government headquarters with banners that said ‘Never bend’.

Nakaima’s opposition to the Henoko project was instrumental in his reelection three years ago, and even recently he was declaring it was impossible to move Futenma elsewhere on the island, calling on Japan and the United States to find another site outside the prefecture.  He’s been quoted as lambasting the central government, which he insists still treats Okinawa as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the US military.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fast to call Nakaima a strong leader making “a courageous decision”.  Nakaima said his decision came, in part, after meeting with the Prime Minister in Tokyo earlier this week.  “The imminent issue for us on Okinawa is to remove the dangerous airbase from the heart of the town as soon as possible,” Nakaima explained, adding that “The prime minister is saying the government will work towards halting the Futenma operation within five years.”

Japan’s Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera, echoed Abe’s assurance, saying the central government “will do its utmost to relocate the base to Camp Schwab as quickly as possible”.  Nakaima has told Abe he wants to see Futenma closed within five years.

Nakaima has had the government’s request for the landfill project on his desk for months, as his staff pored over the numerous environmental issues.  The meeting with Abe this week, during which the Prime Minister pledged more than ¥300 billion ($2.9 billion) each year in Okinawa development funds through 2021, was considered a point that convinced the governor it was time to yield.  Nakaima praised the package for what it will give to Okinawa.

The governor’s approval allows progress to begin on filling in land in Oura Bay, adjacent to Camp Schwab on northeast Okinawa’s east coast.  While the ground facilities will be constructed on the current Marine base, the two runways will be built on the reclaimed land.  Environmentalists have protested the decision, charging the landfill and construction work will damage coral reefs, as well as impair the habitat for Okinawa’s version of the manatee, the dugong.