Photo/Illutration Landfill work is under way off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on March 26 to build a new U.S. base to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture. Soft seabed has been discovered in the area in the background. (Eiji Hori)

NAHA--The central government faced the prospect of a new round of confrontation with Okinawa Prefecture after it submitted a design change April 21 for a highly contentious project to build a new U.S. military base.

Tokyo, which has pushed relentlessly to continue work on the reclamation project despite fierce local opposition, found itself in the unusual position of seeking approval for the change due to steps needed to shore up the soft seabed discovered at the site.

It was a foregone conclusion that the prefectural government, led by Governor Denny Tamaki, would reject the application in an attempt to halt the project once and for all.

Even so, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga appeared optimistic of a favorable outcome, telling a news conference April 21, “We believe prefectural officials will make an appropriate response as (the design change) is based on the conclusion reached after reviews by experts.”

Defense Minister Taro Kono also signaled confidence that Okinawa officials will cooperate.

The reclamation work off the Henoko district of Nago is intended to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, which is situated in the middle of a densely populated residential area of Ginowan city in the prefecture.

“Removing the danger posed by the Futenma facility is the shared goal of the central and prefectural governments,” Kono told reporters.

The Defense Ministry announced the discovery of the soft seabed in 2018 although it became aware of it during a 2014-16 drilling survey. The presence of the poor subsoil forced the central government to revise the original design of the landfill work.

It needs to gain fresh approval from the prefectural government to proceed with the project.

Okinawa, the nation's southernmost prefecture, is host to about 70 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan. Residents for years have complained about the unfair burden they are obliged to shoulder.

The central government's request to make the design change was submitted two months before the prefectural assembly election in June, in which the Henoko question will be a key issue.

Expenditures for reclaiming land and related work for the U.S. base project have ballooned to 722.5 billion yen ($6.69 billion) from an estimated 231 billion yen as of 2013, according to a Defense Ministry report presented in December to a panel of technical experts set up within the ministry.

The report also said it will take another 12 years to complete the project, including landfill work.

The central government originally expected that the land occupied by the Futenma facility would be returned to Japan in fiscal 2022 at earliest on the assumption the base relocation project was completed.

But there is now no question that this will not occur until at least the mid-2030s.

The ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau in Naha announced April 20 that the reclamation work off Henoko will be suspended for the time being after a construction worker was confirmed to be infected with the new coronavirus.

(This article was written by Daizo Teramoto and Mika Kuniyoshi.)