Photo/Illutration Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, left, receives a written request on the Futenma base issue from Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki in Naha on Nov. 6. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

We urge the government to ruminate on the continued turmoil surrounding a fiercely disputed and deeply troubled project to build a U.S. military facility off the Henoko district of Nago, a city in Okinawa Prefecture. The blame for this dire situation lies squarely with its own insincere and strong-arm approach to the massive undertaking.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki refused to give his approval to the central government’s application for a design change in the reclamation work concerning the replacement facility for the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture.

The design change was proposed to strengthen the weak seabed in the planned reclamation area. A large swath of seabed has been described as “soft as mayonnaise.” After scrutinizing the proposed change for the past 18 months, Tamaki concluded that seabed surveys and steps to protect the local environment were woefully lacking.

The central government’s approach to the project has been nonsensical.

The weak seabed was discovered in the northern portion of the planned reclamation area during a drilling survey completed by 2016. But the government only owned up to the fact after it started dumping dirt into the sea for reclamation in December 2018. This indicates a blatant disrespect not only for people in Okinawa but also for the public at large.

Tamaki was within his rights when he roundly criticized the government, saying the design change was due simply to the  government’s rush to start construction work without properly addressing key issues.

This cover-up is not the only ethical lapse related to the project.

The extremely soft clay layer stretches to a depth of 90 meters in easternmost parts of the planned reclamation area where a seawall is to be built. But the government claims, citing the results of a seabed survey conducted at a location several hundreds meters from the location, that work to shore up the site is needed only for 70 meters under the sea surface.

Referring to this fact, Tamaki pointed out that an in-depth survey at the most critical location had not been carried out. “No sufficient consideration has been given to the safety of the ground and measures to prevent disasters,” he added.

The slipshod nature of the seabed survey was also raised at the Diet. But the government has never offered a convincing explanation.

There is no doubt that completing the new air base will be a tall order. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a reputed U.S. think tank, said in a report about the project, “It appears unlikely that this will ever be completed.” Some U.S. lawmakers have expressed doubts about its viability as well.

There is a long list of other concerns about this undertaking, including the impact on the local ecosystem, which is home to dugongs and coral, the expected subsidence of the ground after completion of the new base and ballooning costs. According to the central government’s revised estimates, construction will cost nearly 1 trillion yen ($87.7 billion), far more than the original estimate.

Despite all these issues, the government is forging ahead with the plan, insisting this is the “only solution” to resolve the problem of the safety threat posed by the Futenma air base, located in a densely populated area, and flying in the face of fierce local opposition, as indicated in a prefectural referendum on the issue. It seems the government is incapable of rational thinking about this policy challenge.

As long as the government sticks to the Henoko plan, there will be no progress toward removing the safety threat posed by the Futenma air base, the original goal of the proposal to relocate the facility.

In a fresh reminder of the problem, a metal canteen recently fell from an Osprey aircraft operating from the Futenma base over a densely populated residential area. According to the central government’s new estimates, the construction of the Futenma replacement facility will another 12 years to complete, far longer than initially expected. Is the government going to force local residents to live with the risk of an aircraft crash and deafening noise pollution that undermines the quality of their life for all these years?

The Kishida administration is expected to contest the governor’s decision. Doing so would only further deepen the rift between the central government and local communities that was created during the previous administrations headed by Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga. Kishida, Suga’s successor as prime minister, should work with the United States and Okinawa prefectural authorities to hammer out an effective plan to reduce the onerous burden borne by those living in Okinawa.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 27