Japan has begun main reclamation work at a controversial US military airbase on the southern island of Okinawa, prompting protests and “strong” opposition from the local governor.
Construction workers on Friday started dumping a truckload of sediment into the sea at Henoko on Okinawa’s east coast to build a runway for the Marine Corps base that will be moved from densely populated Futenma in the island’s south.
The central government in Tokyo has reversed Okinawa’s earlier ban on landfill work at the site.
Opponents of the move say it would not only harm the environment – construction risks corals and endangered dugongs, according to activists – but also ignore local wishes to have the base removed from the island entirely.
“I can’t help but feel strong anger at the start of (land reclamation), which ignores the will of the Okinawan people,” Denny Tamaki, the recently elected governor who opposes to the base being relocated within the island, told reporters.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in August to protest against the planned relocation.
Tamaki has raised the issue with both government officials in Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet and on a trip to the United States. Officials in Tokyo said they will stick with the plan despite protests. Washington’s position is that the dispute should be resolved between the central government and Okinawa.
Local media said protesters demonstrated at the site, including some who paddled out to sea to try to block the work.
Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s total land area, but hosts more than half of the approximately 47,000 US military personnel stationed in the country.
For decades, residents have asked for some of the bases to be moved, with resentment growing after a string of accidents and crimes committed by US military personnel and workers at the facility as well as long-standing complaints over base-related noise and pollution.
As a solution, Abe’s government has sought to move the unpopular Futenma base to a remote site, part of which will be built through land reclamation.
But many in Okinawa feel the base should be moved to somewhere else in Japan, and say the task of hosting US troops should be more fairly shared.
On Friday, government spokesperson Yoshihide Suga repeated that Tokyo regards the plan as “the only solution” to maintain an important US military presence while addressing local concerns.
Okinawa is set to hold a non-binding local referendum on February 24 about the planned base relocation.