Photo/IllutrationRiot police try to remove opponents to the base relocation project in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 3. (The Asahi Shimbun)

The government’s decision to begin delayed land reclamation work to build a new U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture makes a mockery of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated pledge to “stay close to the hearts of people in Okinawa.”

Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said on Dec. 3 that the work will start on Dec. 14 to pour earth and sand into the sea off the Henoko district of Nago in northern Okinawa. The reclaimed land will be used to build a new air base to take over the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, a crowded city in the southern part of the prefecture.

In the gubernatorial election in September, voters in the southernmost prefecture made the choice that left no doubt about their rejection of the government’s plan to relocate the Futenma base to Henoko.

The minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism on Oct. 30 invalidated Okinawa’s decision to revoke a permit granted by a former governor for land reclamation to build the replacement facility. The prefectural government on Nov. 29 submitted a petition for a review of the land minister's decision to the central and local government dispute management council, a third-party organization established under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Iwaya’s announcement came on the heels of the prefectural government’s move to stop the administration from pushing ahead with the construction work despite the election outcome.

The Abe administration’s action tramples on the wishes of people in Okinawa and ignores the established procedures for settling such a dispute. Its high-handed behavior is totally unacceptable.

More than 5,800 species of living things, including 262 endangered species, have been confirmed to inhabit Oura Bay off Henoko.

It should not be forgotten that the dumping of earth and sand would cause immeasurable damage to this fertile sea.

The government’s case for forging ahead with the Henoko base plan is riddled with deceptive and inconsistent claims.

To begin with, the reason for rushing the work given by the government is highly questionable.

The government says the urgently needed removal of the safety hazards posed by the Futenma air base requires the return of the land occupied by the base to Japan under a bilateral agreement as soon as possible. That would reduce the burden of the heavy U.S. military presence borne by Okinawa, the government argues.

This seems to suggest that the land of the Futenma base can be returned to Japan in a timetable of several years.

But the prefectural government’s estimates of the time required to build the proposed new base tell a completely different story.

The reclamation work itself will take five years, according to the prefecture’s estimate. It will take an additional five years to improve the conditions of the seafloor in some parts of the Henoko reclamation area, which has been found to be far softer than originally assumed in a geological survey conducted by the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau.

Building the facilities will require another three years. All in all, the entire process of constructing the new base will take at least 13 years, according to the prefectural government, which presented these estimates to the administration during a round of intensive talks on the issue between the two sides last month.

The total cost will balloon and far exceed the estimated 240 billion yen ($2.11 billion) and reach levels more than 10 times higher, according to the prefectural government’s calculations. It will, of course, be financed by taxpayer money.

If the administration says these estimates are not correct, it should show data to support its claim and seek a solution based on agreements between the two sides on these points. That is how the government should deal with the situation.

Instead, the Abe administration adamantly sticks to its position that the relocation to Henoko is the only solution under a Japan-U.S. agreement to return the Futenma base to Japan without making any serious response to the questions raised by the prefectural government. The administration has also made no effort to negotiate with the United States for a review of the operation of the Futenma base.

The way the administration has been handling this problem has not shown even an inch of sincerity toward Okinawa.

The administration has held intensive talks with the prefectural government over the issue and Abe has met with Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki twice. But these actions seem to be nothing but attempts to create the fact that the administration has talked with the prefectural government over the issue. Four years ago, the administration was criticized for refusing to meet with Tamaki’s predecessor, the late Takeshi Onaga, after his election as Okinawa governor.

But the administration’s stance toward Okinawa has not changed at all.

The Okinawa prefectural government plans to hold a referendum on the relocation of Futenma base on Feb. 24.

The administration is in such a rush to proceed with the Henoko work apparently because it wants to dispirit opponents opposed to the relocation plan by pushing the plan possibly past a point of no return.

This is a sad spectacle of political decay.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 4