Japan: Protests Mount (again) over US’ Okinawa base–Can’t Stay, Can’t Move, Won’t Go

Protesters block delivery of U.S. base environment report to Okinawa government

JapanToday, National, Dec. 28, 2011

TOKYO — Japan’s years-long bout of indecision over plans to move a U.S. military base on Okinawa appeared to be descending into farce Tuesday when protesters stopped couriers from delivering a report.

Around 100 people opposed to plans to shift the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma to a quiet coastal spot on the southern island surrounded a delivery van carrying an environmental impact assessment.

Local media say the government-commissioned report, which Washington demanded be completed by the end of the year, is likely to say nature would suffer little if a giant runway-on-stilts was built in turquoise seas by a pristine shoreline.

Many Okinawans, angry at decades of having shouldered the burden of more than half of the around 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, say they do not want the facility at Henoko on the east coast of the island.

They say another part of Japan should take the base, which currently sits in a crowded urban area of the island, near dozens of schools and hospitals.

In a bid to appease Washington’s call to move forward with the on-again off-again base relocation, Japan’s defense ministry earlier said it would hand deliver the report to the Okinawan local government by Dec 31.

But in an apparent effort to avoid a confrontation with anti-move protestors, officials decided instead to post the document.

Footage aired by Nippon Television showed protestors surrounding a van carrying the 7,000-page report.

Activists were seen grabbing the shoulder of a man who got out of the vehicle and pushing him against the van. Twice the driver tried to take his vehicle through the gates of the building, but was prevented before giving up and driving off.

Protestors, who say the habitat of the rare dugong—a marine mammal—would be badly damaged if the base was built at Henoko, were irate at the apparent move.

“It is outrageous that the government mailed the paper just because they feared their officials would be blocked,” one of the protesters told TBS. “They are wrong if they think they can get away with this.”

Tokyo and Washington have squabbled since 2009 over the fate of the base, where locals have long complained of aircraft noise, the risk of accidents, and crime associated with a large contingent of young servicemen.

The dispute helped to bring down former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama who mused openly about moving the base off the island then backtracked to appease Washington, which maintains that a shifting security environment in east Asia means the base has crucial strategic value.

Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan, promised to relocate Futenma, as originally agreed with Washington in 2006, but was brought down by domestic issues before he could fulfil his promise.

The environmental assessment report became talismanic after a senior defense official compared the government’s foot-dragging over its submission with a rapist’s unwillingness to inform his intended victim of an impending attack.

He was swiftly sacked, but not before the issue had flared badly.

The report was destined for Okinawa Gov Hirokazu Nakaima, who, under Japanese law, has the final say on whether or not to permit the reclaiming of land at Henoko that is vital to the base construction.

But Nakaima, who owes no allegiance to Tokyo, has consistently mainstained his opposition to the plan. He said he would not refuse to accept the report but insisted he will not approve approve the relocation plan.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, opposition Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Nobuteru Ishihara criticized the government for sending the report to Okinawa by private courier.

“I can’t understand why the defense minister didn’t deliver it in person,” Ishihara told reporters. “I also think Prime Minister Noda should have visited Okinawa to explain the government’s views to the Okinawan people.”

However, the report was finally delivered around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, NHK reported.

© 2011 AFP

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