A Japan Court Orders Okinawa to Approve a Modified Plan to Build Runways for US Marine Corps

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Protesters rally near a gate of Camp Schwab, a U.S. Marine Corps camp, in the Henoko neighborhood of Nago, northeast of Okinawa, Japan, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. (Kyodo News via AP)

TOKYO — A Japanese court on Wednesday ordered the governor of Okinawa to approve the central government's modified plan for landfill work at the planned relocation site of a key U.S. military base on the southern island despite persistent opposition and protests by residents.

The decision will move forward the suspended construction at a time Okinawa’s strategic importance is seen increasingly important for the Japan-U.S. military alliance in the face of growing tensions with China as Japan rapidly seeks to buildup its military in the southwestern region.

The ruling by the Fukuoka High Court Naha branch allows the Land and Transport Ministry to order the modification work designed to reinforce extremely soft ground at the designated relocation site for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, overriding Gov. Denny Tamaki's disapproval. The ruling ordered Tamaki to issue the approval within three working days.

If completed, the new site will serve a key Marine Corps facility for the region and will be also home to MV-22 Ospreys that are currently deployed at Futenma.

Tamaki can still appeal to the Supreme Court, but the local government at this point has no power to stop the work unless the top court overturns the decision.

Okinawa and the central government have long tussled over the relocation of the Futenma base.

The Japanese and U.S. governments initially agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma air station a year after the rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. military personnel led to a massive anti-base movement. But persistent protests and lawsuits between Okinawa and Tokyo have held up the plan for nearly 30 years.

Japan's central government began the reclamation work off Henoko Bay on the eastern coast of Okinawa in 2018 to pave the way for the relocation of the Futenma base from its crowded neighborhood on the island.

The central government later found out that large areas of the designated reclamation site are on soft ground, which some experts described “as soft as mayonnaise,” and submitted a revision to the original plan with additional land improvement. But Okinawa's prefectural government rejected the revision plan and suspended the reclamation work.

The ground improvement plan requires tens of thousands of pillars and massive amounts of soil, which opponents say would damage the environment.

The Supreme Court in September turned down Okinawa's appeal in another lawsuit that ordered the prefecture to withdraw its rejection of the modified landfill plan.

Tamaki has said it was unjust that the will of the residents is crushed by the central government.

Tamaki has called for a significant reduction of the U.S. militar y on the island, which is home to more than half of 50,000 American troops based in Japan under the bilateral security pact. Tamaki also has demanded the immediate closure of Futenma base and the scrapping of the base construction at Henoko. Okinawa accounts for just 0.6% of Japanese land.

Tokyo and Washington say the relocation within Okinawa, instead of moving it elsewhere as demanded by many Okinawans, is the only solution.

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