Okinawa’s New US Marine Base’s Underwater Nemesis

Okinawa’s New US Marine Base’s Underwater Nemesis

A dugong eating seagrass. Photo from Wikipedia

The Okinawan dugong is pressed into service to foil the fliers

The long-besieged proposed US Marine base at Henoko on the pristine eastern coast of Okinawa, opposed by at least 75 percent of the island’s residents, has run into another obstacle — new court decisions protecting the lowly, endangered Okinawan dugong.

The Marines have been trying to build an expanded base on Okinawa for decades. The corps base at Futenma, built at the time of the Japanese defeat in World War II, has been the focal point of a long string of controversies including noise, air pollution, endangerment of public safety, the behavior of troops and the steadily encroaching civilian population. Protesters often gather outside the gates. 

Since 2003, a lawsuit has been winding its way through the courts to use the protection of the dugong, a sea mammal said by Okinawans rather fancifully to be the “model of mermaids” to stop the construction of the base. It picked up stem on July 31 when the plaintiffs of the Dugong Lawsuit filed additional claims prohibiting access to the adjacent Camp Schwab for reclaiming the Henoko site until the Department of Defense fulfills its duty by engaging related parties in their process of evaluation.  

On Aug. 15, the US District Court in San Francisco accepted the plaintiffs’ claim and is now working on their proceedings. Nonetheless, only three days after that, a controversial drilling survey started at Henoko in the midst of outcries of opposing citizens, lending credence to accusations that the Japanese government is trying to create a fait accompli by forcibly going forward with the Henoko reclamation. The Marines intend to reclaim the sea with 21 million cubic meters of soil, equivalent to 3.5 million 10-ton dump truck loads. 

However, if the US court rules in favor of the Dugong Lawsuit plaintiffs again, the construction work itself could be suspended. This ruling may come out in the next six months.

In 1997, the Mammalogical Society of Japan estimated the number of Okinawan dugongs at fewer than 50. They are sensitive and swim away as soon as they hear engine noise from boats. In Japan, they are described as a “natural monument” and any impact on their habitat is prohibited. 

In 1996, the Japanese and US governments decided to relocate the base to Henoko Bay, which is relatively unpopulated, to seek to reduce the military impact.  In 1997, the majority of residents of Nago province, which encompasses the site, voted strongly against the plan. Nonetheless, the mayor accepted the plan, resigned and moved to Tokyo.

That has left the dugong as the bulwark against the construction. Hideki Yoshikawa, the international director of Save the Dugong Campaign Center explains the case as follows.  “If we used the US Endangered Species Act, it could have been powerful enough to immediately halt the construction of the Henoko US base since dugongs are endangered species in both countries, but the applicability of the Act on international case was not clear. Meanwhile, NHPA has an international clause that can allow a matter in a foreign country to be tried in a US court.”

In April 2014, the DOD released a document called “US Marine Corps Recommended Findings,” concluding that the construction and operation at Henoko and Oura Bay would have “no adverse effect” on dugongs because of the extremely low probability of dugongs in the area.

However, the Okinawa Defense Bureau (ODB) found dugongs’ feeding traces since June 2009 to May 2013 on the reclamation site itself. The finding has been recognized and documented by the Marine Corps, but the Okinawa defense bureau and the DOD concluded that there would be “no adverse effect on dugongs,” saying that the number of traces are limited.  

The plaintiffs complained that the DOD’s conclusion is arbitrary and lacks a factual basis and that DOD had not included related parties in partnership at all before reaching such a conclusion. In addition, recently, the Japanese Nature Protection Association found more than 118 dugongs’ feeding traces directly on the reclamation site only in 3 months from May to July 2014.  These important follow-up findings have not been reflected nor to be reflected in the evaluation of ODB or DOD in spite of citizens groups’ calls.

Henoko US Base Planned since 1966

Currently, both the Japanese government and pro-base incumbent Okinawan governor Hirokazu Nakaima and some major media companies advocate the necessity of a new base at Henoko in exchange of closing Futenma Air Base. Even the former DOD Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the defendants, called Futenma Air Base as “the world most dangerous US base.” 

Today, the US government can use the Japan’s “host nation military support budget” while the US defense budget allocated for Marine Corps has been shrinking. (The Japanese government decided to provide annual host nation military budget of US$1.7 billion despite opposition from citizens’ groups) From the government’s standpoint, general constructors, a major political interest group, can make profits through building the state of the art base.

 “To begin with, relocation of Futenma to Henoko” itself does not make sense,” said Yoshikazu Makishi, a renowned Okinawan architect and also a plaintiff. “In the US, there is a regulation that there should not be any residence within 4,500 meters length and 900 width from the end of any runway. 

“However, as for Futenma Air Base, there are houses and even schools in this zone.  Futenma does not comply with the US regulation and should be abolished immediately without any condition.  It is quite absurd that both the US and Japanese governments say that Futenma could become a permanent air base if a new Henoko base cannot be constructed.”

Increasing International Attention

The world International Union for Conservation of Nature), a 1200 member umbrella organization including more than 200 governments and 11,000 scientists, adopted three resolutions to recommend the US and Japanese government to conduct an environmental impact assessment and to draw a plan to protect Okinawan dugongs in 2000, 2004, and 2008 respectively.  

In March 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Office of High Commissioner Committee for Eliminating Racial Discrimination (CERD) gave warning to the government of Japan concerning the construction of the  base and in November of the same year, CERD asked for further information. On Aug. 30 CERD sent its final recommendation to the government of Japan to regard Okinawan people as the local indigenous people and to respect their rights, public opinions, and culture.  In this way, international attention has been mounting on the issues of Okinawa.  

Mari Takenouchi is a freelance journalist in Okinawa

Comments