Okinawa Mayor Invokes Red Tape, Sea Cow Deaths to Stop U.S. Base

May 21, 2014 1:35 am ET

May 21 (Bloomberg) -- Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago on Okinawa island, acknowledges he’s failed so far to persuade the Japanese and U.S. governments to drop plans to move an American military base to ecologically sensitive land in his city.

But he’s not giving up.

Inamine yesterday questioned the effectiveness of the U.S. military force on Okinawa and vowed to use his mayoral authority to block permits for the new base. He also promised to press his case with the global community and environmentalists about the threat the facility would pose to the biodiversity of Nago’s Henoko area, including to endangered sea cows also known as manatees.

“Why should only Okinawa hold the burden for security of all of Japan, when the presence of U.S. Marines doesn’t play a big role in deterring China?” Inamine, 68, said in an interview in Washington. “I, as mayor, have operational control over two ports that are needed for use as construction landfill and I will exercise all powers in the municipality to block access.”

The American military presence on Okinawa remains among the most contentious issues in relations between the U.S. and Japan. Over the years, U.S. officials have apologized for crimes committed by servicemen and faced anger over noise, pollution and accidents tied to the bases.

Outrage over the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen led to an agreement the following year to try to reduce the burden on the island by shifting Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of the city to a site to be built partly on reclaimed land in the more rural Henoko region. The plan was re- endorsed a decade later.

Strategically Important

Okinawa, Japan’s southern-most archipelago, makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s land area and hosts about half the 38,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan. It’s regarded as strategically important by the U.S. because it’s close to Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

Japan has been seeking to strengthen its military ties with the U.S. at a time when it is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China. On April 24, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama “affirmed the resolve on both sides” to make “steady progress” on the relocation of the Futenma Air Station.

“Okinawa Governor Nakaima has requested termination of the operation of the Futenma Air Station in five years or less,” Abe said during the U.S. leader’s visit to Tokyo. “With regard to this and other requests by the governor, I explained this” to Obama “and requested further cooperation from the United States to alleviate the impact on Okinawa.”

Sea Cow

Inamine, who was visiting New York and Washington this week, said he wasn’t able to persuade the U.S. government officials and members of Congress he met to scrap plans for the facility at Henoko.

As part of his effort to rally opposition to the base, he sat down with representatives from the Marine Mammal Conservancy on May 19. He said he hopes to engage U.S. environmentalists on threats the new base would pose to Henoko’s unspoiled coastline and to creatures such as the dugong, a relative of the sea cow.

With Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party holding a strong majority in the Diet, the prime minister can easily alter the law to bypass Inamine if needed. Inamine said he recognizes the possibility of such legal changes, though he added that such a move would have serious implications for the Japanese democracy.

“A majority if not all of the residents don’t want the base in our city and what does it mean for both the U.S. and Japan to ignore citizens’ voices?” Inamine said.

A poll published by regional broadcaster Ryukyu Asahi on Dec. 3 found three-quarters of the 1,076 respondents said Futenma, now located in the city of Ginowan, should be moved outside the prefecture or outside the country. About 72 percent said the governor shouldn’t approve the land reclamation project to build the new base. The survey was carried out between Nov. 28 and Dec. 2 and gave no margin of error.

--With assistance from Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo.