Japan's Abe Reiterates Pledge to Transfer US Base in Okinawa amid Rising Local Antipathy

TEHRAN (Tasnim) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday reiterated the Japanese government's commitment to relocate a controversial US air base within Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, amid rising antipathy on the island due to a recent spate of US military-linked mishaps.

Japan's Abe Reiterates Pledge to Transfer US Base in Okinawa amid Rising Local Antipathy

"By gaining the understanding of local citizens, we will go ahead with the base transfer plan in accordance with the Supreme Court's ruling," the prime minister said, with reference to a series of legal suits and counter suits brought by Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga and the central government, Xinhua news agency reported.

Onaga is staunch proponent of lessening the US base-hosting burdens of the people of Okinawa and relocating the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to the coastal Henoko region also on the island.

Abe's remarks came on the heels of Taketoyo Toguchi, 56, winning Sunday's mayoral election in Nago, defeating incumbent Susumu Inamine, 72, who was seeking a third term.

Inamine, supported by Onaga, and also opposed to the base's relocation, intimated that his rival had deliberately avoided the key issue of the base's relocation and focused on economic promises to develop the region as being a priority in the mayoral race.

While Okinawans are constantly incensed by US military-linked crimes and accidents, gaining more economic support from the central government has always come into play in local elections in the southern Japan prefecture.

The Supreme Court in December 2016 ruled illegal Onaga's revocation of a permit given by his predecessor to allow work related to the base's relocation to go ahead.

In April 2017, against a harsh local backlash, the central government started reclamation work for the new base by building seawalls as part of a pact made with the United States in 1996 about the bases' relocation.

Authorities in Okinawa opposed to the construction work fear that the sediment poured inside the seawalls being constructed for the replacement facility in Oura Bay will be extremely detrimental to the environment.

The overall plans for the new base involve 157 hectares of land being reclaimed from pristine waters off the Henoko area and the building of a V-shaped runway.

Officials in Okinawa have stated that the reclamation work runs contrary to the National Biodiversity Strategy of Japan as it is damaging an ecosystem unique to Okinawa.

Environmentalists have also voiced concerns about the materials used for the reclamation work introducing invasive species to the region.

Experts, having surveyed the coral reef at the bottom of the ocean near the tip of one of the seawalls, concluded that the Porities lutea coral, which is part of the reef and just 20 meters away from the tip of the seawall, has a high likelihood of being destroyed by the construction work.

The waters of Oura Bay are also the last home of the highly-endangered Japanese dugong, which is a large marine mammal and cousin of the manatee.

Environmentalists are certain of the species' extinction if the central government's construction continues.

Prefectural authorities in Okinawa have also claimed that the construction work is legally infringing on the rights granted to local fisherman in the coastal region.

Along with environmental concerns, prefectural officials and citizens have been outraged by a recent spate of accidents and mishaps in Okinawa involving US military helicopters.

In December 2017, a window falling from a US Marine CH-53E transport helicopter and crashing onto the grounds of an elementary school, just meters from where children were taking an exercise class, ignited anger and fear among locals.

The accident did not stop helicopters, based at Futenma, from flying over the school following the incident, despite ardent protests from the local government.

In January alone, three helicopters, also from the controversial Futenma base, were forced to make emergency, off-base landings in Okinawa, leading to staunch condemnation from local residents and a palpable rise in anti-US sentiment on the tiny sub-tropical island.

On Thursday, the prefectural assembly of Okinawa unanimously adopted a resolution protesting the helicopter-linked mishaps, highlighting the fact that US forces in Okinawa continue to operate the models of helicopters involved despite having not provided adequate reasons for the accidents.

The resolution also calls for an immediate halt of flights over civilian areas, as the Marines agreeing to avoid flying over the elementary school struck by the falling window, have not been adhered to, according to recent video footage.

The prefectural assembly, in the resolution to be delivered to the US Embassy in Tokyo and to US Forces, Japan, which operates under the auspices of the United States Pacific Command, is also calling for the Marines stationed in Okinawa to be transferred out of the prefecture and Japan altogether at the earliest time possible.

Okinawa hosts 74 percent of all US bases in Japan and local fears about the rising instances of US military-linked accidents and crimes as well as issues pertaining to the Futenma base move have seen a widening gulf develop both politically and socially between the tiny subtropical island and the central government.

Those on the island have been increasingly describing their forced predicament as a form of "occupation."

In July 2017, Onaga filed a fresh lawsuit aimed once again at blocking the Futenma relocation plan.

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