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Land ministry suspends Okinawa’s move to block U.S. base transfer

The land ministry on Tuesday temporarily suspended the Okinawa government’s recent move to block landfill work for a key U.S. military base transfer within the southern island prefecture.

Land minister Keiichi Ishii announced the decision in favor of the Defense Ministry’s claim that further delays in the planned base relocation would hurt the Japan-U.S. alliance, giving the green light for the resumption of landfill work.

In August, the Okinawa government suspended construction for the controversial transfer of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma by retracting its earlier approval for the landfill work, citing legal issues that became subsequently apparent.

(Antibase protest on Oct. 1, 2018 after Tamaki’s victory in gubernatorial election)

Based on a 1996 bilateral accord, Tokyo and Washington have been seeking to transfer the Marine base from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago, but many Okinawa residents want the base moved outside the prefecture, which has long hosted the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.

The state and the Okinawa government are expected to enter into a fresh legal battle over the matter, with the prefecture set to turn to a third-party committee tasked with resolving conflicts between the central and local governments.

Deputy Okinawa Gov. Moritake Tomikawa told reporters in Naha the land ministry’s decision is «unreasonable,» arguing the Defense Ministry should not have sought a suspension of the local government’s move in the first place under a scheme designed to protect private citizens, not a government body, from a violation of their rights.

The landfill work was approved in 2013 by then Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, but his successor Takeshi Onaga, who died in office in August, revoked the approval in 2015, citing legal defects in Nakaima’s decision. In an ensuing court battle, the revocation was found illegal and Onaga was forced to rescind it in late 2016.

But the prefecture again retracted the approval in August after Onaga’s death, citing insufficient environmental protection measures and an issue with soft ground on the seabed beneath the construction site, among other issues. It subsequently put the construction work on hold.

On Oct. 17, the Defense Ministry’s local bureau requested the land minister examine the legitimacy of Okinawa’s decision based on the Administrative Appeal Act, which provides rules for the appeal and review of government decisions.

Okinawa, now led by Onaga’s successor Denny Tamaki, argued the defense bureau’s request was seemingly not urgent as it was filed more than a month after the local government’s revocation of the approval for landfill work. The defense bureau said delays in the base relocation mean local residents would be left in an unsafe environment.

All — Kyodo News+

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