Photo/Illutration The seabed in Oura Bay in the background was discovered to be unsuitably soft, presenting a problem for land reclamation work off the coast of Henoko in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture. (Reina Kitamura)

NAHA--The Okinawa prefectural government’s rejection of a change of plans in building a controversial U.S. military base is expected to trigger a series of familiar legal maneuvers to get shovels back in the ground.

But while the prefectural government had failed in its past legal attempts to stop the base-relocation project, officials close to Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki are showing greater confidence that they will come out on top this time.

“The defects in the central government’s plan are clear,” a prefectural official said. “There are just too many problems with the soft seabed.”

Land reclamation work off Henoko in Nago has been proceeding so the runway functions can be transferred there from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in heavily populated Ginowan, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

However, the central government was forced to apply for a design change to deal with problematic unstable seabed, described to be as “soft as mayonnaise,” discovered on the site off the coast of Henoko.

Tamaki held a news conference on Nov. 25 to announce he is rejecting the application and vowed to continue to fight the project.

“The construction work will never be completed,” he said. “The most important thing will be for the central government to suspend all work and set up a venue for dialogue that we have asked for to resolve the situation.”

Tamaki also blasted the central government for starting the land reclamation work in December 2018 without thoroughly looking into the surrounding seabed.

“It should have conducted the absolute minimum necessary study before implementing the construction work,” Tamaki said. “The entire cause of the current situation lies in pushing ahead with the project while there were uncertainties involved.”

The central government submitted its application to change the construction design in April 2020 to address the problem. The Okinawa prefectural government conducted its evaluation of the application after submitting 452 questions over 39 broad categories to the Okinawa Defense Bureau regarding the changes to the plan.

It concluded the application could not be approved.

But central government officials are not backing down either.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with reporters on Nov. 25 after the Okinawa prefectural government announced its rejection of the application and said, “We will pay close attention to what Okinawa does.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the government maintains its position that the Henoko move is the only way to resolve the problems associated with the Futenma base.

Tokyo is expected to resort to measures it has used in the past when the Okinawa prefectural government retracted past approval of construction work for the Henoko project.

One has been to ask the land minister to rule on the retraction based on the administrative complaint investigation law. The land minister in all cases has nullified the retraction.

Okinawa also took up the matter with the Central and Local Government Dispute Management Council and asked it to rule on whether the land minister’s decision was legal. But the council said the matter was out of its jurisdiction and did not rule for the prefecture.

However, while those past measures involved changes in decisions made by the Okinawa prefectural government, the latest case involves a rejection of an application made by the central government.

Even if a Cabinet minister nullifies the Okinawa decision, construction work cannot resume because the central government has not gained approval for the change in the plans.

Okinawa could continue to take the matter up with the dispute management council as well as the courts to drag out the process and prevent work on the soft seabed from starting.

That is leading some central government officials to pin their hopes on the Okinawa gubernatorial election to be held in autumn 2022. If a candidate more favorable to the Henoko project defeats Tamaki, the central government could quickly begin work again.