Photo/IllutrationOkinawa Deputy Governor Moritake Tomikawa, left, and Kiichiro Jahana, another deputy governor, hold a news conference on the prefectural government’s decision to revoke the permit granted by a former governor for the land reclamation work for a U.S. military base in Nago in the prefecture on Aug. 31. (Masaru Komiyaji)

The prolonged tussle between Okinawa Prefecture and the government over the plan to build a new U.S. military base in the Henoko district of the Okinawan city of Nago reached an important juncture on Aug. 31.

The prefectural government revoked the permit granted by a former Okinawa governor for land reclamation work in Henoko to build a facility to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the densely populated city of Ginowan in the prefecture.

The local government’s decision, based on the expressed intention of the late Takeshi Onaga, the former Okinawa governor who died in early August, came after holding a “hearing” to give the central government an opportunity to make its case about the issue.

The move has provoked a flurry of controversy and speculation. Critics have questioned whether it is appropriate for the local government to make such a weighty decision when it lacks its leader. Political pundits are trying to assess its impact on the election to choose Onaga’s successor, to be held on Sept. 30.

In a news conference to announce the decision, the prefecture’s two deputy governors repeatedly stressed that the decision had been made as a result of simply following the related administrative procedures.

The revocation of the permit given by Onaga’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, will force the government to suspend the reclamation work for the time being. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration plans to file a lawsuit to nullify the prefecture’s decision.

There is no predicting the court’s ruling. But it must be acknowledged that the reasons for the decision cited by the prefectural government have a certain degree of legitimacy.

A geological survey conducted by the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau, for example, has unexpectedly found that the seafloor in some parts of the Henoko reclamation area is as soft as mayonnaise to a depth of 40 meters or so.

The possibility of an active fault running under the seabed in the area has also emerged.

The Abe administration, however, concealed these facts for more than two years until it finally disclosed them this spring in response to a freedom-of-information request from local residents.

In the hearing for the prefectural government’s decision to revoke the approval of reclamation, the administration reportedly said it intends to conduct an additional survey and consider the relevant facts for talks with the local government.

But the reclamation work has continued without a recess in the meantime.

It is obvious that the administration has been seeking to buy time and accumulate faits accomplis.

Even if we do not make any judgment on whether the new base should be built or not, we cannot deny that the administration has made a mockery of the people in Okinawa and the principle of local autonomy itself.

When former Governor Nakaima approved the Henoko reclamation plan at the end of 2013, the administration promised in writing to have advance talks with the prefectural government over how the reclamation work will actually be carried out on the assumption that the geological conditions in the area were unclear.

But the administration has ignored this promise and forged ahead with the work in defiance of repeated “administrative instructions” issued by the prefectural government.

The way the administration has behaved with regard to the Henoko reclamation plan is simply outrageous. A private-sector contractor would have long been ordered to stop the work and restore the original condition.

The law concerning sea reclamation was established during the Taisho Period (1912--1926). The drafters of the law could not have imagined any situation where the government committed an illegal or unjust act in connection with land reclamation.

It is impossible to defend or justify the way the administration has taken advantage of the nature of the law in pushing through the plan.

Whether the new base should be built in Henoko is not the only question that has been raised.

The situation also poses the question of how the central government should respond to protests from local governments based on the will of the local communities.

This is a grave question with huge implications for all local governments.

We need to keep thinking about this problem from the viewpoint that the chain of events leading to the decision to revoke the permit and its implications for the future raise vital issues for the entire nation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 1