Okinawa governor orders halt on US airbase construction

Takeshi Onaga asks Japan’s central government to suspend work on the contentious airbase, citing environmental concerns.

Okinawa - Takeshi Onaga
The construction of a US Marine airbase at Henoko beach has strained relations between Washington, Tokyo and Okinawa prefecture for almost two decades now [EPA]

Tokyo – Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga has ordered Japan’s Defence Ministry to halt construction of a new US Marine airbase within one week or he may revoke the government’s legal permission needed to build the base there.

“It’s difficult to dispel concerns that our fisheries’ regulations are being violated,” Onaga said at a press conference on Monday, referring to alleged environmental damage of coral reefs by the construction teams.

Although the construction of the airbase has been agreed to by both the Japanese central government and Washington, the local governor’s consent is also needed under the country’s environmental laws.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the senior spokesman for Japan’s central government, quickly responded publicly by declaring that there was “no reason” for the governor to issue such an order.

“Following all the relevant laws,” Suga told a press conference in Tokyo, “we would like the construction to continue.”

The issue of the construction of a US Marine airbase at Henoko beach has strained the trilateral relationship between Washington, Tokyo and Japan’s culturally distinct prefecture of Okinawa for almost two decades now.

In recent months, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly stated his view that the construction of the airbase is the “only solution” to the realignment of US military forces in the Asia-Pacific. Yet a large majority of the population of Okinawa have told pollsters that they firmly oppose the construction of yet another US base on their islands, which already host most of the US military facilities in Japan.

Takeshi Onaga was elected last November by uniting this anti-base sentiment behind him and by proclaiming the importance of maintaining Okinawa’s unique identity.

Senior officials of the Abe government have refused to even meet with the new governor, understanding the depth of the popular anti-base feeling that he represents.

Tetsuo Jimbo, editor-in-chief of the independent, told Al Jazeera that it may be possible for Governor Onaga to prevail in his confrontation against the policies of both his own government and those of the US by utilising Japan’s environmental laws.

“He has the legal authority, but his challenge is to maintain crucial popular support within Okinawa,” Jimbo said.

Source: Al Jazeera