Reclamation work continues off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, to build a new U.S. military base to relocate the functions of the U.S. Marine Corp Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture. (Kosuke Hamana)

The future of a massive land reclamation project in Okinawa Prefecture for a new U.S. military base looks increasingly murky as construction work entered its third year on Dec. 14.

The project pushed by the central government is not only fiercely opposed by local residents, but also plagued by uncertainty due to the porous nature of the seabed off the Henoko district of Nago. It has been described as having the consistency of mayonnaise.

Officials in Tokyo acknowledged the existence of the soft seabed only after work got under way to pour dirt into the planned reclamation area.

The discovery is bound to significantly delay completion of the project to build a new facility to handle functions now undertaken by the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture.

The area occupied by the Futenma facility was initially expected to be returned to Okinawa in fiscal 2022 at the earliest, assuming the new facility would be completed by then.

But the central government is now pitching the mid-2030s as the likeliest early time frame.

In addition, project costs are snowballing, largely because of the soft ground discovered in the northern side of U.S. Marine’s Camp Schwab that huddles Henoko and nearby localities.

Late last year, the central government revised its estimate for the overall cost of the reclamation project and construction work to about 930 billion yen ($8.94 billion), around 2.7 times the initially projected sum.

But prefectural officials contend the figure is way too low and that the real cost is 2.55 trillion yen.

The central government set out to reclaim about 157 hectares of seabed off the Henoko district two years ago.

The planned reclamation area consists of two portions: about 111 hectares in the sea on the northern side of Camp Schwab and about 39 hectares in the sea on the southern side of Camp Schwab.

The landfill work is projected to require a total of 20.62 million cubic meters of dirt. As of the end of November, 3.8 percent of this had been poured into the southern side.

Despite overwhelming local opposition to the project, the central government insists it is the “only solution” to resolve pressing safety issues concerning the Futenma airfield, which sits in the middle of a residential area and generates ear-splitting noise levels with the roar of aircraft.

The government is aiming to reach a “point of no return” that will make it impossible to jettison the project.

Okinawa Prefecture's opposition, as shown in a referendum on the issue and through gubernatorial elections, stems from the fact that it already hosts about 70 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Prefectural authorities view the discovery of the soft ground in the planned reclamation area as a powerful card to set back the project.

As required by law, the central government in April applied to the prefectural government for a change in the design of the landfill work due to the weak foundation.

For their part, prefectural officials intend to drag out the procedures of rejecting the application for as long as possible. This, say analysts, is bound to include court challenges initiated by both sides.

In doing so, prefectural officials hope the ensuing delay in the project and ballooning costs will make it abundantly clear to the public that the Henoko project is nothing more than a white elephant.

“We want to buy as much time as possible to bring public opinion to the point that the project is no longer feasible,” said a senior official with the prefectural government.

(This story was compiled from reports by Shinichi Fujiwara and Ryo Aibara.)