Photo/IllutrationA pier at Motobu Port in Motobu, Okinawa Prefecture, suffered damage due to Typhoon No. 24 in late September. (Sei Ito)

  • Photo/Illustraion

NAHA--A damaged port in Okinawa Prefecture is delaying until next year the central government's work to put dirt and sand into a sea area for land reclamation for the relocation of a U.S. base within the prefecture.

Motobu Port, damaged in a typhoon in September, is not likely to be repaired until 2019, putting off the work within this year to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago.

Therefore, the confrontation between the central government, which is pushing for the relocation of the air station, and the prefectural government, which is opposing it, is expected to continue.

On Nov. 10, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya met with Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki in the Okinawa prefectural government building in Naha.

In the meeting, Iwaya asked Tamaki for understanding on the relocation, saying that the central government’s goal for the return of the land now used for the Futenma air station to Japan remains unchanged.

In response, Tamaki referred to the fact that he won the Sept. 30 Okinawa governor's race by garnering the largest number of votes ever in the history of Okinawa gubernatorial campaigns.

“I want the central government to give up construction of a military base in Henoko that can’t obtain support from the people of Okinawa Prefecture,” Tamaki said.

Part of the dirt and sand that will be used for land reclamation in Henoko is to be collected in Motobu and Kunigami, both located in the northern part of the main Okinawa island, and loaded at Motobu Port for transport to Henoko.

At the port, however, three of six piers can’t be currently used because concrete was damaged in Typhoon No. 24, which hit the area in late September.

Officials of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau and companies that plan to use the port to transport the materials visited the Motobu town government on Nov. 1 and 6 to apply for permission to use the facility.

However, the town government declined to accept the application forms, saying, “Under current conditions, we can’t accept them.”

According to the Okinawa prefectural government, which manages the port, the repair work will take two or three months even if it starts within this year after an assessment to be conducted in early December.

After the meeting with Tamaki, Iwaya told reporters in Naha about the government's timetable for placing dirt and sand for land reclamation.

“We must proceed while watching the situation concerning permission to use the port," Iwaya said. "We have yet to decide when we will start to do so.”

The central government has promised the Okinawa prefectural government that the use of the Futenma air station will be stopped by February 2019.

As for the promise, Iwaya said in Ginowan, “Honestly speaking, it’s difficult to keep the promise (due to the delay of construction in Henoko).”

It is difficult to transport a large volume of dirt and sand for land reclamation over land routes.

If the central government tries to use a different port, it must obtain permission to use that facility. Therefore, the Okinawa Defense Bureau will continue to seek permission to use the Motobu Port.

On Nov. 9, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita met with Okinawa Vice Governor Kiichiro Jahana. In that meeting, Sugita expressed a willingness for the central government to cooperate with the repair work at Motobu Port.

The Motobu town government has issued 45 permits for piers that can be used at Motobu Port. Therefore, it rejected the defense bureau’s application form “not due to political reasons but due to physical reasons,” said a town senior official.

The town government is unlikely to grant permission to the bureau until the repair work is completed at Motobu Port. Because of that, it is unavoidable to delay the work to put dirt and sand at the coastal site.

The Okinawa prefectural government plans to hold a referendum as early as February 2019 on whether to support the relocation of the Futenma air station to Henoko.

The referendum is legally non-binding. With the referendum, however, Tamaki wants to show the Okinawa people’s strong opposition to the relocation.

If the referendum is held when the government starts to put dirt and sand for land reclamation, it will be inevitable that the action will influence the voting.

It could also affect the unified local elections, the Lower House by-election for the Okinawa No. 3 constituency and the Upper House election next year.

(This article was written by Shinichi Fujiwara, Sei Ito and Ryuichi Yamashita.)