The government said Monday it plans to start full-fledged land reclamation work on Dec 14 for the construction of a controversial replacement facility for a U.S. air base in Japan's island prefecture of Okinawa, despite strong local opposition.
The government began loading soil and sand onto vessels in the morning in Okinawa for preparations linked to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Air Station Futenma from the crowded residential area in Ginowan to the Henoko coastal district of Nago under a Japan-U.S. agreement.
"Base relocation to Henoko is the only measure to lighten Okinawa's (base-hosting) burdens and realize the return of (land occupied by) Futenma," Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters. He also said "yes" when asked if the ministry will carry out the reclamation work "with unwavering resolve."
Many people in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, want the Futenma base to be moved outside the prefecture. They are also concerned the landfill work will have a huge impact on the marine environment in the area, which has coral reefs and is a habitat of the endangered dugong.
"The landfill work is totally unacceptable given the fact that the residents have repeatedly made their opposition to a new base clear," Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki told reporters in the prefectural capital of Naha.
He won the gubernatorial election in late September following the death of his predecessor Takeshi Onaga known as a staunch opponent of the base relocation plan.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the central government has notified Okinawa Prefecture of the schedule for the reclamation work because it has "completed preparations."
"We will proceed with the construction work while ensuring safety," he told a press conference.
The Defense Ministry's Okinawa bureau used a pier run by a local cement maker for loading operations because its initial plan to use a public port had been blocked by the town of Motobu, which has authority over the facility.
Tamaki said it was "extremely regrettable" that the central government used a private pier to carry out the work without a prior notification.
The town has said the public port cannot accommodate new vessels because it was partially damaged in a typhoon.
The central government and Okinawa Prefecture had a few rounds of talks in November over the Futenma base transfer to find common ground, but to no avail. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tamaki remained apart in their meeting last week.
"Following the result of the dialogue, we came to the conclusion that we will proceed with the construction work as planned. I believe we took procedures in a polite manner," said Iwaya.
Some 50 protestors, with signs calling for the construction work to be halted, gathered near the Ryukyu Cement Co. pier in Nago where the vessels were loaded with sand and soil.
Police removed those taking part in sit-in protests by force after they did not respond to directions from the company.
"I absolutely cannot tolerate the government's stance of enforcing landfill work using a private pier," said Hiromasa Iha, 66.
The vessels left the pier around noon Monday and are expected to stay offshore for some time.
In an attempt to thwart the progress of the relocation work, the Okinawa government in August retracted its earlier approval of landfill work.
But land minister Keiichi Ishii issued an injunction in late October overriding the retraction on the grounds that it was unreasonable and would undermine relations of trust with Japan's key security ally, the United States.
Japan and the United States reached an agreement in 1996 on the return of the land used for the Futenma base. In 1999, the Japanese government decided to relocate the base to the Henoko area.