By: Temo Dias and Hina Murayama

The sudden death on Aug. 8 of Takeshi Onaga, Okinawa’s governor and a critical political figure in the prefecture’s opposition to US military bases, has thrown into disarray the fight to stop the US Marines’ new Futenma Replacement Facility, whose construction is to begin on Aug. 17.

The construction of the Marines’ air station was bitterly opposed by Onaga, who died of pancreatic cancer at Urasoe Hospital.  He was replaced by Vice Governor Kiichiroh Janah for a short period, only to be replaced in turn by another vice governor, Moritake Tominaga ‘until further notice,’ which may be until coming prefectural elections in September. Both Janah and Tominaga share Onaga’s opposition to the Marine facility.

Thorn in Abe’s Side

Onaga had begun proceedings revoking the facility’s land reclamation license on July 27. A thorn in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s side, Onaga had filed multiple court lawsuits nationally in the effort to stop the Futenma facility, losing in December 2016 on the theory that the US-Japan defense alliance took precedence.

Highlighting regional self-governance and democracy, Onaga repeatedly denounced the national government’s stance and the situation to Congress in Washington, the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Gland, Switzerland.

Although Onaga’s health problems were revealed on May 15 in a press conference in Naha, concerning surgery to remove a cancerous pancreatic tumor the month prior, his death was a shock to those expecting decisive momentum against the construction of the military base.

Okinawa hosts more than 70 percent of US military bases in Japan, despite accounting for only 0.6 percent of Japanese territory. The prefecture has been a battleground of war and military occupation since Japanese annexation in 1879.

Over daily citizen protests and 80 percent citizen disapproval, the Okinawa Defense Bureau (ODB), the government of Japan’s Okinawa division, announced in June that on Aug. 17 it would begin pouring 21 million tonnes of sand and soil into Oura Bay to begin construction of the Futenma facility.

Earthquake Vulnerability

Opponents have argued vainly that geophysical tests prove the underground sea bed is vulnerable to earthquakes. National and international environmental groups oppose the destruction of rare coral communities and a hotspot of biodiversity that is said to rival that of the Galapagos Islands with over 5,300 living species, quite a few newly discovered.

The ailing Onaga held a press conference on July 27 announcing his decision to seek revocation, over engineering and environmental problems, of the land reclamation license that permitted the dumping of sand and soil brought from the Kyushu and Setouchi regions, which was issued by the former governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

“Facts that were not yet known when the permit for land reclamation was given have come to light, and the appropriate conditions in terms of land usage are no longer being met,” Onaga stated in what became his ‘last trump card.’

He also spoke of the flow of peace in the East Asian region on the Korean Peninsula which he stated Japan was not following. He criticized the national government as a client state of the US to the extent of it going “above the constitution of Japan” and the national Diet.

License withdrawal debate

The governor’s office said the meeting to debate the arguments for and against the new base would go on as planned following Onaga’s command from his hospital bed prior to his death.

“I promptly put up a representative and I want you to take all possible measures to manage the prefectural government,” he told his affiliates before he died. On Aug.6, he said he wouldn’t allow the license revocation and hearings to be delayed.

The process of license revocation has already begun despite the ODB’s request to delay the meeting until Sept. 9 and lengthen the discussion process to two weeks, much past the time construction would already have begun.

However, the national government has stated that it would bring the prefecture to court and try to cancel the withdrawal in order for the construction to proceed.

Elections and the uncertain path

The movement forward is uncertain with news of Onaga’s passing and is increasingly blurry with prefectural elections slated for Nov. 18. He was expected to campaign for reelection. It is the first time an Okinawan governor has died in office. As he hadn’t named a successor, his ruling party is rushing to find a replacement and alleviate crucial economic concerns in the approaching elections.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party’s Okinawa chapter is affiliated with the national LDP, headed by Prime Minister Abe, and the party’s candidate is expected to cancel the attempt to block the military base if it wins. The LDP will also be holding leadership elections during the time and this is hoped to distract the party from focusing on the prefecture.

The entire political environment has suddenly accelerated, with organizations trying to consolidate a front to stop the base, maintain the license withdrawal and lay the ground for the way forward.

However, with elections expected as the facility construction is in debate, discussion on the new base will be impossible to avoid by candidates, making the election result a referendum on the new US military facility and pathway into Okinawa’s future.

At the moment, social groups and citizens are planning their strategies, regrouping and holding emergency meetings discussing reducing the 32 bases in the prefecture.

Legal debacle

The previous governor Hirokazu Nakaima, approved the land reclamation license following pressure from the mainland. But a 2003 court case with national and international environmental organizations went against the US Department of Defense concerning dugong habitat, a critically endangered marine mammal held as a Japanese National Monument and protected under the U.S. NHPA. On Aug.1 San Francisco Federal Judge Edward Chen ruled the ODB had done its part to “take into account” the issue, much to the disagreement of environmentalists.

A farewell ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 13 in response to the state of mourning on the Okinawan islands and in Japan.

Temo Dias and Hina Murayama are part of a group of researchers on East Asian political affairs, environmental issues, and governmental corruption.