Photo/IllutrationA dump truck unloads dirt and sand into waters off Henoko in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 14. (Jun Kaneko)

Bulldozers have started pushing the first loads of dirt and sand into waters off the Henoko district in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, marking a crucial new phase in a contentious project to build a new U.S. military base.

The Dec. 14 move came despite heated opposition by the Okinawan people to the Abe administration's plan to relocate the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, another, more crowded city, in Okinawa.

This latest stage of the project will have a far more serious environmental impact than the previous phase of shore protection work.

It also comes two or so months after voters in Okinawa clearly and emphatically expressed their rejection of the Henoko base plan in a gubernatorial election.

The Abe administration is forging ahead with an outrageously unfair policy of building a new base under the pretext of reducing the excessive burden that the southernmost prefecture shoulders in hosting so many U.S. military facilities.

During his meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki asked, “Until when, and how much must Okinawa (bear the burden)?”

Tamaki’s cry for sympathy with Okinawa’s plight strikes a chord in our hearts with renewed force.

FICTITIOUS RULE OF LAW

In March, it was revealed 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 fact was first discovered by a geological survey conducted by the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau, but the government did not announce the findings for two years. It was only revealed through a freedom-of-information request.

Prefectural authorities later revoked the permit granted by a former Okinawa governor for land reclamation work in Henoko at the end of August, citing this discovery and other reasons, including legal offenses and violations of agreements between the central and local governments.

In response, the Abe administration two months later instructed the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism to invalidate Okinawa’s decision by invoking the administrative appeal law.

The law was established to provide a legal procedure to handle cases in which the rights of citizens have been violated by administrative acts.

By resorting to this system and getting a member of the government to decide a dispute between the local government and a central authority, in this case the Defense Ministry, the administration simply made sure that the outcome would be in its favor.

It is hardly surprising that this maneuver provoked a loud chorus of criticism and protests among scholars and other experts in administrative law.

Before the start of the latest phase of the project, the prefectural government protested that the central government was not abiding by its promise to check that the dirt used met environmental standards.

The Abe administration simply turned a deaf ear to the protest.

Abe likes to stress the importance of “democracy” and “rule of law,” usually in allusion to issues concerning China and North Korea. But his behavior at home stands in stark contradiction to what he says.

REFUSING TO RETHINK

Two refrains have appeared and reappeared in the political discourses on the Henoko base plan given by Abe and other senior administration officials: “staying close to the hearts of people in Okinawa” and “Henoko is the only solution (to the problem of the Futenma base).”

Is the Henoko base plan really the only, or even an effective solution to the problem?

The plan to relocate the Futenma base to Henoko was officially endorsed by the Cabinet in 1999. The prefectural government demanded certain conditions for accepting the plan, including a 15-year time limit to the military use of the new base as a means to prevent perpetuation of a fresh burden. But the government later ignored all these conditions.

Now, a distressing spectacle is unfolding in Henoko that is reminiscent of the U.S. military’s forcible “bayonet and bulldozer” approach to building new bases in Okinawa during its ironfisted rule over the islands soon after the end of World War II.

The government argues that Okinawa is at a critically important location for Japan’s defense strategy to deal with security threats posed by China and that means a new Henoko base is necessary.

But the United States is making moves to review its defense strategy and realign its military capabilities, including a plan to transfer the Marines stationed in Okinawa to Guam. As a result, U.S. views about deterrence are changing.

The Abe administration, however, is turning a blind eye to the changes occurring in the regional security landscape and, in adamant refusal to rethink the Henoko base plan, is building a new base at the cost of provoking profound antipathy among the local people there.

Many experts in and outside Japan question the wisdom of the administration’s policy, saying it does not really contribute to Japan’s security. But the administration is showing no sign of being engaged in reasonable discussion about the problem.

The administration’s rush to accelerate the work in the face of all these questions and criticisms is undoubtedly being driven by the political schedule for next year.

A prefectural referendum on the Henoko reclamation is slated for February. Unified local elections and a Lower House by-election for a district in Okinawa are scheduled for April. Then an Upper House poll will be held in summer.

The administration is apparently determined to advance construction work to the point of creating a sense of resignation among people in the prefecture and con voters across the nation into thinking that the Henoko problem is over.

The administration’s hidden political motive can be clearly seen through the dust swirling up in Henoko.

IN OKINAWA’S SHOES

What is even more disturbing about the administration’s attitude is its willingness to crack down on people with dissenting voices while rewarding those who act according to its agenda, for example, by offering massive budget appropriations for local economic development and other generous gifts.

The administration’s naked carrot-and-stick tactics have created a deep division within Okinawa.

Former Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, Tamaki’s predecessor who died in August, was very perturbed by the administration’s hard-line stance in forcing local governments to obey its decisions.

In addition to stressing Okinawa’s identity in fighting against the Henoko base plan, Onaga made repeated attempts to draw attention to the huge implications of his political battle for democracy and local autonomy by casting it as a problem for the entire nation.

Some moves to respond to this argument are now emerging. Earlier this month, the municipal assembly of Koganei, Tokyo, adopted a proposal calling for national debate on the necessity of a new military facility to replace the Futenma base.

This was in response to a call from local residents who hail from Okinawa. These people urged other local residents to consider that what is going on in Okinawa is something that can also happen to them.

The administration’s approach to tackling the knotty Okinawa base problem could also be used to deal with controversial plans to build public facilities in other parts of the nation. They include not just facilities concerning national security but also those related to “national policies” or “government prerogatives,” such as a new nuclear power plant or facility for processing radioactive waste.

Do we wants our nation to be governed in this manner?

This is a question that Okinawa, which has a long history of getting a raw deal from national policies, is posing to each and every individual living in Japan.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 15