Photo/IllutrationJapan Coast Guard officials block a protestor in the sea area off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on April 19. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The government in August plans to enter a point of no return in building a new U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture while taking the contentious issue off the table for the governor’s election.

In mid-August at the earliest, the central government will start dumping dirt and sand into the sea area off the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture in a reclamation project for the new air base.

The base will take over the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is now located in Ginowan in the prefecture.

The land reclamation work would make it next to impossible to recover the original state of the sea area. That would give the government a milestone in the long-delayed project and could spread the view that the Futenma relocation is an established fact.

If the project is seen as inevitable, the base relocation issue, which has sparked widespread protests in Okinawa Prefecture, might not become a topic of debate in the Okinawa gubernatorial election scheduled for November.

That strategy would put Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, an opponent of the relocation plan, in a tight spot and give an advantage to a candidate close to the Abe administration.

Onaga won the gubernatorial election in November 2014 on a campaign against the government’s plan to relocate the Futenma air station to Henoko.

Residents in Okinawa Prefecture have long protested the fact that their island prefecture hosts more than 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan. They have protested the military accidents and crimes committed by U.S. personnel.

Onaga has said he would use every possible means to block the relocation plan.

Despite his lawsuits against the government and constant protests from residents, Tokyo is proceeding with the project, which stems from an agreement in which the United States will return the land at Futenma to Japan.

“In order to realize the relocation of the Futenma air station and the return (of the land) as early as possible, we will steadily proceed with work at Henoko while paying maximum consideration to the natural environment and residents’ daily lives based on relevant laws,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference on June 7.

The central government has tried to quell anti-military opposition by offering economic incentives to residents in Okinawa Prefecture.

In the Nago mayoral election in February, candidate Taketoyo Toguchi did not clearly say during the campaign if he supported or opposed the base relocation plan.

Instead, he focused on local revitalization measures and won the election over the incumbent, who was against construction of the base.

After the election, the Defense Ministry told Toguchi that it will resume grants for the realignment of U.S. forces, which had been suspended during the days of his predecessor.

“I want to use the grants to make school lunches and child-care free of charge,” Toguchi said.

The government’s strategy appears to be working.

“Among local voters, there is a view that even if they oppose the relocation, the government will proceed with the work, so it would be better for them to think about their daily lives and futures,” a government official said.

Onaga has yet to say if he will seek a second term as Okinawa governor.

In May, he said he is battling pancreatic cancer.

He is now receiving treatment using anti-cancer drugs and can come to the Okinawa prefectural government office on only a limited number of days a week.

The governor has said he will attend the entire regular session of the prefectural assembly scheduled to start on June 12.

“Onaga has a willingness to seek his second term, but he has a problem with his physical strength,” a person close to the governor said.